Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Vietnam Wastes Little Time Trying to Connect with the Trump Administration
April 7, 2017
Vietnam Wastes Little Time Trying to Connect with the Trump AdministrationBy: Murray Hiebert (@MurrayHiebert1), Senior Adviser and Deputy Director, Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC)
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.
Murray Hiebert is senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Biweekly UpdateMalaysians allowed to leave North Korea after Kim Jong Nam’s body sent to Pyongyang
Malaysia reached a deal with North Korea on March 30 to end the mutual travel bans imposed after the alleged assassination of Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia, allowing nine Malaysians and hundreds of North Koreans to return home. The body of Kim Jong Nam was returned to North Korea on March 31, along with three North Koreans allegedly involved with the assassination. The men were questioned before their departure and no grounds were found to hold them, according to Malaysian police.
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Latest rally against Jakarta governor draws reduced crowds
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Thailand sends huge tax bill to exiled former prime minister
Thai tax officials on March 28 delivered a bill for around $500 million in back taxes and fines to the former home of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The government claim extended a March 31 deadline to collect unpaid taxes on the 2006 sale of nearly $2 billion in shares of Thaksin’s telecommunications company to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings. Lawyers for Thaksin, who fled into exile in 2008 to avoid imprisonment, accused the government of treating him unfairly and said they will challenge the tax bill.
Singapore responds to U.S. grant of asylum to teen blogger
Singaporean blogger Amos Yee, 18, was granted political asylum on March 24 by a U.S. immigration judge in Chicago, who ruled that Singapore’s prosecution and detention of Yee constituted persecution of his political opinions. In response, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs released a statement explaining that Yee had pled guilty to charges of hate speech, which is criminalized in Singapore. Yee has been jailed twice in Singapore for politically provocative online commentaries, which included criticism of Muslims and Christians.
Philippine government agrees to cease-fire with communist rebels
The Philippine government on April 5 agreed to a temporary joint cease-fire with the Maoist New People’s Army (NPA) during peace talks in the Netherlands. Both the government and the communists also committed to a prisoner release. The parties reopened peace negotiations—which had broken down in February—on April 2, but had been unable to agree on a cease-fire beforehand.
Vietnam’s president says Trump sent him letter to promote bilateral cooperation
Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang during a March 31 meeting with U.S. ambassador Ted Osius said that U.S. president Donald Trump had sent him a letter in February conveying his desire to cooperate with Vietnam on economics, trade, and regional and international issues. Quang asked Osius to thank Trump on his behalf, and highlighted Vietnam’s support for U.S. efforts to maintain freedom of navigation and overflight in the region. Osius reportedly said that Trump is considering attending the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam.
Vietnam renews trade talks with U.S.
Vietnam and the United States met on March 27-28 in Hanoi to discuss economic cooperation under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA). The meeting focused on resolving bilateral issues between the two countries and established working groups on agricultural and food safety, industrial goods, intellectual property matters, and digital trade. The two sides also reviewed Vietnam’s implementation of labor reforms and the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement. Vietnamese minister of industry and trade Tran Tuan Anh welcomed the resumption of talks, which were the first U.S.-Vietnam TIFA meeting since 2011.
Trump executive order calls for investigation into trade with four Southeast Asian nations
U.S. president Donald Trump signed an executive order on March 31 directing the Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office to investigate the trade imbalance between the United States and 16 countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. The order gives officials 90 days to craft a report identifying trade abuses and nonreciprocal practices contributing to bilateral trade deficits with the listed countries. Commerce secretary Wilbur Ross said on March 30 the report would give the White House an empirical basis upon which to take a “very measured and analytical approach” to trade issues.
Photo credit: GUIDO DA ROZZA/Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/boPsjd)
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