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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.
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.
To read the entire article by Huong Le Thu, visit the Asia Pacific Bulletin website.