Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on Nov. 12 © AP

Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on Nov. 12 © AP

Vietnam manages delicate balance between US and China

16 November 2017

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Donald Trump last week became the first U.S. president since the Vietnam War to have visited Vietnam during his first year of office, spending three days in the country during his inaugural Asian tour.

His much-anticipated visit followed a trip to Washington in May by Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Xuan Phuc – the first Southeast Asian leader to call on the new U.S. president in the White House.

The friendly exchanges made it clear that when it comes to the crunch, even Trump’s radical approach to trade will not undermine the two countries growing efforts to cooperate in the face of China’s seemingly relentless rise. Nor will “America First” be allowed to eclipse the hard efforts made in recent years to overcome the painful legacy of the Vietnam War and deepen defense and security cooperation. While Trump has broken with his predecessor on many issues, he looks set to stick to Barack Obama’s earlier approach on strategic ties with Hanoi.

But, the Vietnamese leadership will not allow the special relationship with Washington to destabilize the country’s delicate ties with Beijing. While it remains wary of Chinese military expansionism, especially in the South China Sea, Hanoi wants to preserve a balanced relationship with China. Shortly after Trump’s departure, Vietnamese leaders welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping with a 21-gun salute on his first official visit to Vietnam after his success at the Chinese Communist Party’s recent 19th Congress.

Vietnam’s Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, left, and China’s President Xi Jinping in Hanoi on Nov. 12 © Reuters On a mission to mend strained ties, Xi met with Vietnamese Communist Party leaders and signed 19 cooperation agreements. A symbol of mutual goodwill was the opening of a Vietnam-China Friendship Center.

Building the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship four decades after the end of the war has taken hard efforts – and the spur of China’s increasing assertiveness. Defense and security cooperation has emerged only in the last few years, helped by Obama’s “pivot” toward Asia that paid special attention to Southeast Asia. Vietnam was one of only three Southeast Asian countries that has seen an increase in U.S. defense assistance, albeit from low levels.

The improvement in relations has led to increased bilateral trade, which has grown 100-fold from $451 million in 1995 after the U.S. trade embargo was lifted to $45 billion in 2016.

But both sides have been treading carefully. Hanoi has been constantly wary of the Chinese reaction to the easing of ties between the former enemies, while legacy issues stemming from the Vietnam War and political differences reflecting U.S. insistence on democratic values and human rights also influenced relations.

Trump’s presidency, however, has created a new challenge by focusing attention on the trade imbalance. As his officials have pointed out, the mushrooming of bilateral trade has been unequal: as Vietnam’s exports to the U.S. have grown to $32 billion in 2016 so has its trade surplus, which is now America’s sixth on the list of countries with largest trade deficit.

Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement has fueled at least as much anxiety in Vietnam as in other Asian exporting countries.

To read the entire article by Huong Le Thu, visit the Nikkei website.

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