Vietnam: A Promising Partner for the Trump Administration


July 12, 2017

Asia Pacific Bulletin

Number 387 | July 11, 2017
ANALYSIS

Vietnam is a Promising Partner for the Trump Administration

By Huong Le Thu

Image result for Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and President Donald TrumpVietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and US President Donald Trump held talks in Washingotn DC on May 31 (local time), discussing ways to develop bilateral ties in a more substantive manner.

 

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was the first Southeast Asian Head of State – and the third from Asia (after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping) – to meet with President Donald Trump since he took office. During his late May three-day visit, he also visited New York to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Vietnamese membership in the United Nations before traveling to the White House. Phuc’s mission was to forge a personal relationship with President Trump, who has yet to form any consolidated view on policy towards Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea.

President Trump, during the May 31 meeting with Prime Minister Phuc, said that he is glad to see a more “balanced” trade relationship with Vietnam. This new trend of seeking what Trump considers to be more fair trade relationships might be challenging for any Southeast Asian state with smaller size and capacity. However, Vietnam aims to demonstrate goodwill by meeting the White House halfway on such expectations.

Switching Contexts

Almost exactly a year ago, the bilateral relationship reached a new high, with then-President Obama’s visit to Vietnam where he announced the total annulment of the arms embargo that had been in place since the war. In fact, Vietnam’s relations with the United States had been warming significantly over the past few years, coinciding with China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and with the Obama administration’s rebalance policy.

Trump’s victory in the presidential election last November generated some unease in Hanoi that the promising momentum could be lost. Just like other Southeast Asian states, Vietnam rarely figured in Trump’s campaign speeches if at all. He put Vietnam in the same category as China – unfair traders that were dumping their cheap products into the American market. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) posed an existential challenge to the whole project and was a hard hit for Vietnam. Vietnam – the least developed economy of the 12 TPP members – was widely predicted to benefit the most from the trade agreement. More importantly, TPP served as a tool for Vietnamese policy makers hoping to “escape China’s orbit” by reducing economic dependency on Chinese trade. The Trump administration’s declaration that the rebalance is dead only further exacerbated Vietnam’s strategic anxiety.

But Vietnam is no stranger to such difficult circumstances. The visit can be seen as Vietnam’s proactivity in seeking engagement with the United States. With a mission to seek US continuity in its commitment to regional affairs – especially regional maritime disputes – Phuc aimed to lay out benefits for Washington to induce it to keep ties with Hanoi strong. The prime minister tailored his economic agenda for Trump’s business mindset. Phuc – who is viewed domestically as a hands-on economic reformer – was a better fit for the role than conservative party Secretary General Trong or President Quang, who is a former Minister of Public Security.

A “Carrot” for Trump?

Despite Hanoi’s strategic concerns, bilateral economic relations have been doing well. America remains Vietnam’s largest export market; however, it ranks sixth among trade partners with which the United States has the largest trade deficits. Bilateral trade from January through May 2017 amounted to $16 billion, which constitutes an increase of 9.9% over the previous year. US exports grew by 22% compared to last year. The visit aimed at alleviating some of the Trump administration’s concerns about the growing deficit with Vietnam, which totaled $32 billion last year, a fraction of the deficit with China – $347 billion.

Among the deals Phuc signed was a $15-17 billion agreement on the exchange of technological goods and services. President Trump described this win-win outcome as “more jobs for America, more equipment for Vietnam.” In contrast to the US-Vietnam leaders’ exchange one year ago, this meeting avoided values-based talk and was highly transactional in nature. Leaders in Hanoi have taken note of this shift. With such transactional gestures to generate good will, Vietnam hopes not only to boost bilateral relations, but also to draw Trump’s attention to geo-economic and geo-strategic regional developments.

During the Obama administration, Vietnam – along with other Southeast Asian neighbors – was considered a major beneficiary of American engagement in the region, both strategically and economically. The TPP was seen as a “carrot.” Under this administration, countries like Vietnam may need to come up with their own “carrots” to attract Washington’s attention, or at least ameliorate the perception of relative loss.

A New Model for Great Power-Small Power Relations?

Vietnam remains Southeast Asia’s most vigilant actor thus far during the first months of the Trump administration. Despite the apparent challenges – particularly the White House’s low level of engagement in the region – Hanoi can look to a number of advantageous factors. First of all, Southeast Asia’s US treaty allies – Thailand and the Philippines – are growing increasingly distant from Washington and closer to Beijing. Manila’s shift under Duterte is consequential, particularly for Vietnam, because of its role in the South China Sea disputes. The recent 30th ASEAN Summit showed Manila’s reluctance to even raise the maritime issues publicly. Under these changing regional circumstances, Washington should reconsider modes of strategic cooperation beyond the traditional treaty ally framework. While Singapore also remains a US-reliant regional partner, Hanoi will be more hard-pressed to get the relationship right. This means that Vietnam might be the keenest regional actor to invest in this relationship and become Trump’s “America First” connection in Southeast Asia.

Moreover, while the issue of human rights represented an enduring obstacle for the Obama administration, Trump’s less values-based approach means that the government in Hanoi is likely to be more comfortable with Washington’s new foreign policy direction.

Best Timing Ever

For America this could be a golden opportunity to engage with Hanoi. Despite previous efforts, domestic responses to American defense engagement in Vietnam still encounter a level of resistance. At this juncture, however, there seems to be consensus among Hanoi’s domestic leadership that the region cannot afford America’s absence. Thus, Phuc’s trip – as well as his reciprocal invitation for Trump to visit Vietnam – signals more openness than ever before, and certainly a better negotiating position.

The Trump administration needs to realize that the previous lasting investments in this relationship should not be sacrificed for short-term business gains. In fact, it is the Trump administration that is likely to harvest the fruits that previous administrations carefully seeded. Vietnam is now a key actor in the region, and if the United States wants to retain its position in Asia, it should understand that long-term gains from this relationship are worth more than revenues. If Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan has a global meaning, then securing the support of partners should come first. And a promising partner is Vietnam.

About the Author
Dr Huong Le Thu is a visiting fellow at Strategic and Defence Studies Center, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. She can be contacted at LeThu.Huong@ANU.edu.au.

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington.

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington
APB Series Coordinator: Peter Valente, Project Assistant, East-West Center in Washington

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the East-West Center or any organization with which the author is affiliated.

For comments/responses on APB issues or article submissions, please contact washington@eastwestcenter.org.

East-West Center | 1601 East-West Road | Honolulu, HI | 808.944.7111
East-West Center in Washington | 1819 L Street, NW, Suite 600 | Washington, DC | 202.293.3995

East-West Center in Washington, 1819 L Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036

Cambodia-Vietnam Ties Turn 50


June 21, 2017

Cambodia-Vietnam Ties Turn 50

http://www.eastasiaforum.com

by  Vannarith Chheang, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

Image result for Hun Sen and Prime Minister of Vietnam

Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung  of Vietnam (photo: Duc Tam/ VNA)

2017 marks 50 years of diplomatic relations between Cambodia and Vietnam. Both countries have organised a series of events to commemorate their time-honoured traditional friendship that is bound by strategic convergence, common vision and shared interests.

Over the past fifty years, the relationship ebbed and flowed with changing geopolitics and domestic politics in both countries before settling since 1979. Yet anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia — mainly driven by domestic politics — has constrained both countries from deepening their strategic partnership.

Cambodia’s opposition party tends to use ‘Vietnam threat’ rhetoric to gain popular support. In an attempt to delegitimise the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of the upcoming elections, former President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has posted a series of short video clips explaining the roots of the CPP and its connections with the communist party of Vietnam. But Cambodian voters are increasingly concerned about their livelihood, social justice, good governance, human rights and environmental protection much more than the Vietnam factor.

There is political cost attached to strengthening bilateral relations with Hanoi, including potentially losing votes to the opposition. Despite this, the long-ruling CPP remains committed to maintaining and enhancing the Vietnam relationship for the sake of national and regional peace and development.

Image result for Cambodia and Vietnam

A new bridge is now linking Vietnam and Cambodia after being inaugurated on April 24, 2017 by Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and his Cambodian counterpart Samdech Hun Sen. The Long Binh-Chrey Thom Bridge is built over the Binh Di River and connects the provinces of An Giang in South Vietnam with Cal Dal in Cambodia. It is 442 metres long and 13 metres wide and is designed to withstand speeds of 80km/h and allow cars to cross at a speed of 80 km/h.

It is clear that Cambodia is unable to enjoy peace and development without having good and stable relations with its immediate neighbours. Both countries understand that without sticking together under the ASEAN umbrella, their regional role and leverage will be weakened. As a result, Cambodia and Vietnam’s foreign policies have both focused on regional integration and community-building.

Cambodia and Vietnam also share the concern that rivalry between major powers is threatening regional peace and stability. Learning from their Cold War experience, they must stay united to survive and thrive.

In early 2017, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Cambodia three times, including to attend the ground-breaking opening ceremony of Chrey Thom–Long Binh Bridge (connecting Cambodia and Vietnam), pay an official state visit and attend the World Economic Forum on ASEAN. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is planning to visit Vietnam later this month to commemorate 40th anniversary of his struggle against the Khmer Rouge regime. Such frequent high-level bilateral talks significantly contribute to nurturing political and personal trust, which are the foundations of the relationship.

Early in 2017 at the 4th Meeting on Cooperation and Development among the Border Provinces, both countries’ deputy prime ministers underscored the need to develop the Vietnam–Cambodia border area. They agreed to modernise infrastructure facilities, promote trade, investment, services and tourism and build border economic zones and markets.

Vietnam is now the fifth largest investor in Cambodia after China, South Korea, the European Union and Malaysia — it has invested in 183 projects with an aggregate value of US$2.86 billion. The investment projects target rubber plantations, telecommunications and banking. Vietnam is also Cambodia’s third largest trading partner with about US$3 billion over the last few years. They aim to achieve a US$5 billion trade volume in coming years. The planned construction of 116 warehouses at strategic border crossings between Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — expected to be completed by 2035 — will improve trade flow between the two countries.

People-to-people connectivity between Vietnam and Cambodia has been markedly strengthened over the years. There are currently more than 400 Cambodian students pursuing their higher education at various universities and institutions in Vietnam. And Vietnamese are the largest group of tourists to Cambodia, accounting for 19 per cent of all visitors.

Image result for Cambodia and Vietnam

The  Neak Loeung Bridge located in the Prey Veng Province is 2,220 metres long, 13 metres wide and 37.5 metres above the water level. It will have two wide lanes for traffic. When completed it will facilitate trade between Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.

Looking ahead to the next fifty years, Cambodia–Vietnam relations will evolve in tandem with the speed of ASEAN community building. ASEAN provides institutional and diplomatic leverage for its member states to strategically manoeuvre and collectively hedge against major powers to minimise risks while maximising interests where possible. Collectively advocating for a rules-based regional order will help smaller countries like Cambodia and Vietnam to protect their legitimate interests.

To reduce ‘Vietnam threat’ perceptions in Cambodia, both countries need to promote engagement at all levels. Right now there is a lack of academic or intellectual dialogue between the two countries. Exchange programs among students, youth leaders, future leaders and community leaders need to be further promoted. Political parties in Cambodia should not use Vietnam for their own political gains — such a strategy is obsolete and does not fit into the evolving dynamics of ASEAN regionalism.

Differences over the management of the Mekong River and the South China Sea dispute need to be resolved the ASEAN way — through consultation and consensus. Cambodia and Vietnam might have different views on these complex issues, but they need to respect each other’s national interest and position without harming bilateral friendship and ASEAN unity.

Vannarith Chheang is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore