By Murray Hiebert —
The election of Donald Trump, who has moved slowly to fill many key foreign policy posts and spell out his policies toward Southeast Asia, created some uncertainty and heartburn in Hanoi. “Some countries think there’s a vacuum of power and they try to attract Vietnam,” a senior Vietnamese official recently said, cryptically alluding to China’s efforts to woo its Southeast Asian neighbors while Washington is distracted. “We are trying to avoid this, but some countries may go too far and when the U.S. reengages it may be too late.”
Vietnam has moved quickly in the last decade to deepen ties with the United States to balance its close economic links with China and hedge against Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. No country stood to gain more from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) than Vietnam, so Hanoi saw President Trump’s withdrawal from the trade agreement as a blow to its plans for global economic engagement.
But Vietnamese officials have wasted little time trying to connect with the new U.S. president and pitch his administration about Vietnam’s role as one of the United States’ most reliable partners in Southeast Asia and in dealing with the disputes in the South China Sea. The Trump administration appears to be responding. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc had a brief phone call with Trump shortly after his election and one of the issues the new president asked about was Vietnam’s relations with China. In late February, Trump sent a letter to President Tran Dai Quang suggesting he was interested in promoting cooperation between the two nations.
Hanoi officials are pleased that Vice President Mike Pence will stop in Indonesia in late April along with visits to Japan, South Korea, and Australia. They hope Pence will make a clear statement about the importance of Southeast Asia to the new administration and U.S. plans to engage this dynamic region.
Around the same time, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh is slated to visit Washington for a meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Soon after that, Prime Minister Phuc, who took office last year, is expected to make his first visit to Washington. Deputy Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh is planning to visit for security talks with U.S. defense officials in the next month or two.
Vietnam is hosting the 21-nation Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Danang in November and one of its top priorities is convincing Trump to attend. Trump has not said whether he will go to the summit, but it is believed to be under serious consideration by the White House. Vietnam believes the summit could mark the first time the new president visits Southeast Asia and would provide the first opportunity for him to engage the Asia-Pacific region economically.
Hanoi is heavily focused on its trade and investment ties with the United States under the new administration. On a list prepared by the White House National Trade Council, Vietnam ranked sixth out of 16 countries recently targeted for their large trade surpluses with the United States. One of Trump’s recent executive orders directed a 90-day country-by-country and product-by-product study of the reasons for these U.S. trade deficits.
Even before Trump issued his order, Vietnamese officials told the Commerce Department that they want to work with the United States to achieve more balanced trade and recognize the importance of creating more jobs in the United States. In an apparent response to Trump’s emphasis on bilateral pacts, Hanoi officials have also said to U.S. officials that they would be open to studying the benefits of a bilateral trade agreement with Washington.
Vietnam was one of the first TPP countries to reengage the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office after the new president took office when officials held talks in Hanoi in late March under their Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. Officials discussed deepening commercial ties and addressing bilateral trade issues in such areas as food safety, intellectual property, and digital trade. Vietnam also briefed the U.S. team on its plans to implement labor reforms, a key priority of the United States in the TPP talks.
Since Washington lifted sanctions against Hanoi 23 years ago, Vietnam has emerged as the United States’ 16th-largest trading partner with two-way goods trade topping $52 billion in 2016. Vietnam today is the United States’ 10th-largest agricultural market with exports totaling $2.7 billion last year. Vietnam’s imports from the United States totaled just over $10 billion last year, up 43 percent over the previous year.
Hanoi and Washington have also stepped up defense cooperation since China moved an oilrig into Vietnamese-claimed waters in May 2014. The Obama administration lifted the United States’ longstanding ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam and announced that it would allocate $18 million to provide patrol boats for Vietnam’s coast guard. In 2015, the defense ministers of the two countries signed a joint vision statement on defense relations that included 12 areas of cooperation, including expanding defense trade.
The first signals of Vietnam’s interest in defense cooperation with the new administration could come when Deputy Defense Minister Vinh is scheduled to visit Washington. Several areas in which Vietnam could be interested include purchasing such U.S. equipment as coastal radar, surveillance aircraft, and patrol boats to bolster the country’s maritime domain awareness.
Under China’s watchful eye, Hanoi can be expected to move cautiously and gradually with Washington on military cooperation, Vietnamese officials say. To lessen Beijing’s anxiety about U.S.-Vietnam relations, Hanoi also welcomes Japanese and Indian military cooperation to augment and balance its separate cooperation with the United States, particularly on maritime domain awareness.
Vietnamese officials are understood to be quietly urging the Trump administration to resume freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, including within 12 nautical miles of some of the islands China has reclaimed in recent years. Vietnamese officials, like their counterparts in Manila, are watching closely to determine whether China builds any structures on Scarborough Shoal, which Beijing seized from the Philippines in 2012. Officials in Hanoi complain that the harassment and detention of Vietnamese fishermen near disputed areas of the South China Sea by Chinese enforcement agencies continues to be a challenge.
One area that could see a change in the Vietnam-U.S. bilateral relationship is human rights. The previous two U.S. administrations stressed human rights concerns and organized roughly 20 bilateral dialogues in recent years. The Trump administration has so far given little indication that human rights will be a priority in its foreign relations. To deepen economic, political, and security ties between the two countries in the longer term, it is important that Washington continues to hold open and frank discussions with its Hanoi counterparts on one of the thorniest problems in the bilateral relationship.
Mr. Murray Hiebert is a senior advisor and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. This post appeared in the April 6, 2017, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.
Murray Hiebert serves as senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.