The Art of Staying Relevant: Vietnam-U.S. Engagement at APEC 2017

By Nguyen Thanh Trung —

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc of Vietnam and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meeting on May 31, 2017. Vietnamese leaders hope to successfully engage President Donald Trump at APEC 2017. Source: U.S. Department of State’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.


Many eyes are fixating on the incoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leader’s meeting, which is slated to take place from November 11-12 in the central Vietnamese city of Danang, where Vietnam aims to take advantage of its role as APEC host to advance its own agenda. The informal nature of the APEC summit makes it convenient for Vietnam to engage major economies both multilaterally and bilaterally. Since President Donald Trump killed U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal a few days after he took office, Hanoi leaders are fully aware that they need to promote ties bilaterally with Washington to keep Mr. Trump’s focus on Vietnam and its interests. Thus, Vietnam has zeroed in on President Trump’s attending the APEC summit and meeting with President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi.

In the last couple years, the international situation has changed unfavorably for Vietnam.  Neighboring China is toughening its stance and behaving increasingly assertively in the South China Sea. Small Southeast Asian nations are falling into China’s “charm offensive” due to its economic clout and sizable investments. Meanwhile the United States appears to have embraced an isolationist policy. Vietnam has to recalibrate its foreign policy in order to enhance its export-driven economy and safeguard national interests in the South China Sea. The approach of deep enmeshment was formally approved in the 12th National Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party in the early 2016. Hence, Vietnam will use the role of APEC 2017 host to advance the reorientation of Vietnam’s foreign policy from “participation” to “active engagement” in bilateral and multilateral arrangements.

While it is likely that President Trump has little to offer during his marathon Asia trip, Vietnam may emerge as one of the nations in the region that can provide more to the United States than the other way around. Vietnam has tried at length to top other Southeast Asian nations in its relations with the United States across trade and security issues. Judging from an engagement perspective, Vietnam has demonstrated that it is increasingly aligned with the United States

Against the backdrop of Trump’s retrenchment policy, Hanoi must capitalize on his first visit to make sure that Vietnam’s interests are still convergent with the U.S. calculations in the region. This trip is just one of several high-level visits between the two countries that Vietnam has facilitated since Mr. Trump took office. In May 2017, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was the first Southeast Asian state leader to visit Trump. The two leaders reaffirmed their commitments to strengthen the 2013 Comprehensive Partnership with an emphasis on boosting trade and security interests.

In August 2017, Vietnamese defense minister Ngo Xuan Lich shared with U.S. counterpart Jim Mattis in Washington the need to improve defense ties based on a shared view of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. One subsequent symbol of defense cooperation is a visit from a U.S. aircraft carrier in 2018. This may mean more for Vietnam than for the United States. In taking this step, Vietnam shows that it is bold enough to invite a U.S. carrier to make a port call against Chinese wishes. Intensive naval cooperation and joint exercises with major Western powers have often been kept low-profile in Vietnam, so next year’s carrier visit would mark Vietnam’s departure from being too timid and demonstrate that Vietnam can act like the important regional player that it is.

Perhaps recognizing this, President Trump is choosing Vietnam as his first Southeast Asian destination since he took office in January 2017. He is also the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam during his first year in office. These notable firsts carry some meaningful significance to Vietnamese elites. Even though President Trump has broken away from Obama’s “Asia rebalancing” policy, he still highlights continuities in the U.S. relationship with Vietnam. While there are valid concerns in Hanoi about Trump’s preoccupation with the North Korea nuclear issue, which may distract his attention away from security issues in the South China Sea, APEC 2017 will be a chance for President Trump to show that he is not completely abandoning multilateral arrangements and international trade pacts as he has threatened to do with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS). Vietnam could also be an appropriate place for President Trump to reassure Asian allies and friendly nations that China will not fill the economic vacuum that has been left since Trump scrapped the TPP deal.

In addition, Vietnam could be viewed by the Trump administration as a friendly front-line country against any assertive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. Shared concerns over China’s adventurous ambitions in the region should be the convergent point between the two countries. For its part, Vietnam hopes the United States will increase its presence in the Southeast Asia to maintain stability in the region. This is also in line with the White House’s vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.”

With regard to bilateral trade, the two countries have seen the economic relations improve greatly since their normalization in 1995. Starting from a modest two-way trade volume of $451 million in 1995, Vietnam surpassed Malaysia to become the biggest ASEAN exporter to the United States in 2014. The U.S. market has become biggest for Vietnamese exports. In 2016, the United States ran a sizeable trade deficit of $32 billion dollars with Vietnam, the sixth largest U.S. trade deficit, compared to $27 billion for South Korea. During Mr. Phuc’s trip to Washington in May 2017, Vietnam signed $8 billion worth of trade deals, which were expected to support over 23,000 American jobs. In addition, the 90 million-strong population of Vietnam with a fast-growing middle class is a large potential market for U.S. manufacturers.

Fully aware that Trump’s rhetoric often centers on what he sees as unfavorable trade deals to the United States, Hanoi’s leaders know that they have to actively buy more U.S. products in order to promote other areas of cooperation. They need to speak Trump’s language. Expect Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang’s meeting with Trump to focus on what Vietnam could offer to the United States to keep the latter still relevant to the region. For its part, the United States would be wise to accept.

Dr. Nguyen Thanh Trung is Dean of the Faculty of International Relations, in the University of Social Sciences and Humanities at Vietnam National University – Ho Chi Minh City. He can be reached via email at: [].


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