Today Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will become the first ASEAN leader to visit the White House under the Trump administration. The meeting is a part of his first official trip to the U.S. after more than a year holding the premiership. Phuc’s visit continues a series of high-level bilateral meetings between U.S. and Vietnamese leaders over the past years – most recently, President Barack Obama’s three-day tour in Hanoi in 2016, where the lifting of the arms sales embargo marked a new high in the countries’ relationship.
Much has changed since then, and Prime Minister Phuc’s visit may be the start of an important turn in the two countries’ relationship due to its special timing. Meeting with President Donald Trump in the very early months of his presidency, Vietnam now has the chance to shape the dialogue with one of its key partners for the next four or eight years. The visit may also help Vietnam take the lead in ASEAN’s engagement with the U.S., which is particularly significant against the backdrop of an increasingly complex regional security and economic environment.
The “untraditional” style and areas of focus of the Trump White House, together with its relations with China in the context of the escalating nuclear threat from North Korea, have sparked concerns over a stall in U.S.-Vietnam ties.
With the United States’ departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, a major positive talking point usually highlighted in previous bilateral dialogues is gone. Trump’s focus on the U.S. trade deficit with foreign countries has caused much anxiety in Hanoi. His March executive order for a study to identify forms of “trade abuse” contributing to the deficit may pose threats to Vietnam’s trade surplus with the U.S., standing at $32 billion in 2016. In their meeting, Trump will likely seek a commitment from Phuc to work with the U.S. to make trade more balanced. It will be up to the Vietnamese prime minister to convince Trump that bilateral trade with Vietnam is not the main contributor to American job losses, the bottom line of Trump’s policy.
On the security front, China, as always, will continue to cast its shadow on U.S.-Vietnam relations. With the North Korea crisis ranking high on Washington’s radar, China’s impact on U.S. policy toward Vietnam and the South China Sea will be even more fluid than usual.
Areas of Convergence
As much as the context of the relationship has changed, trade still remains one of the key common interests likely to top the Trump-Phuc agenda. After the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP in January, the Vietnamese government has moved quickly to re-engage the U.S. on many fronts. Numerous exchanges have taken place between Hanoi and Washington, including a Trump phone call with Phuc, a letter to President Tran Dai Quang, and several senior level visits to confirm continued interest in cooperation. Vietnam was one of the first TPP countries to reengage the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office after Trump took office, when officials held talks in Hanoi in late March under their Trade and Investment Framework Agreement.
Against that backdrop, Phuc will almost certainly take this opportunity to gauge the U.S. interest in entering a free trade agreement, with a view toward advancing trade relations with Vietnam’s largest export market. Given Trump’s emphasis on bilateral deals to replace the TPP, the Vietnamese side’s expectation is not without credible ground.
Vietnam and many Asian countries want the U.S. to remain anchored in Asia to provide ballast to China’s growing ambition to use its expanding economic clout to advance sovereign interests. Now is a good time for Vietnam to discuss the issue with the U.S. president. China is focused, for the time being, on its own domestic political events leading up to the 19th Party Congress later this year. In addition, the first Trump-era freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) recently took place on May 24 near one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, signaling a continuity in policy in the region. Phuc’s visit, therefore, enjoys an enabling context to garner deeper understanding of Trump’s strategy and policy toward this critical issue.
One of the persistent barriers in U.S.-Vietnam relations is human rights, and the Trump administration has so far shown little sign that it will prioritize this issue in foreign relations. This may be a change that will impact the dialogue between the two governments, at least in the short term. How productive this approach is in building a long-term and comprehensive strategy, however, will be tested.
The Ball is in Vietnam’s Court
Vietnam has employed a somewhat transactional approach in the early days of the Trump administration that has proved successful to date. Being the first ASEAN country to secure an official state leader visit at Trump’s invitation is one of the most evident achievements. In fact, this level of pragmatism is the cornerstone of the Vietnamese Communist Party’s sustained position in the country’s political space.
How the relationship will evolve in the coming years is still an open question. With the Trump administration lagging far behind other modern U.S. presidents in staffing senior positions, the relationship is still subject to much uncertainty. Though one may note that the U.S. approach toward ASEAN at this stage is still continuity, Trump’s track record during the first months in the White House has proved that there is always a degree of flexibility in his policy. How Phuc forges his rapport and understanding with Trump at their meeting will decide if he can shape such flexibility in Vietnam’s favor.