Anticipation builds for Vietnam's APEC meeting as Trump invited to join world leaders

By Dien Luong   February 14, 2017 | 12:00 am GMT+7
Anticipation builds for Vietnam's APEC meeting as Trump invited to join world leaders
Vietnamese students take a selfie with a paper model of Donald Trump during an election watch event at the U.S. embassy in Hanoi last November. Photo by AFP

It’s hard to predict what he will do or say in Vietnam, if he comes at all.

Vietnamese leaders have officially invited U.S. President Donald Trump to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang this November.

The invitation was presented during a reception at Vietnam's embassy in Washington D.C. on Friday. The event was attended by over 70 American officials who had gathered to discuss U.S. diplomatic policies toward Asia and Vietnam under the new administration.

This will be the second time Vietnam hosts the high-profile APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting. The first was in 2006. The event will held in the central city of Da Nang and is expected to be attended for the first time by Trump and New Zealand's Prime Minister Bill English.

Last December, Trump spoke to Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc over the phone and expressed a desire to further strengthen the warming ties between the two countries. During the talk, the leaders reportedly discussed ways to promote economic ties, trade and investment.

But analysts say it's still too early to expect Trump in Vietnam anytime soon.

"I don't want to discourage Vietnam," Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told VnExpress International.

"But so far we have no indication whether Trump will attend the APEC summit in Vietnam or the East Asia summit in the Philippines in November," Hiebert said. "He made clear during the election campaign that he didn't think much of international institutions such as NATO," he said.

But on the other hand, "he may find attending the APEC CEO summit a great opportunity to meet business leaders from around the Asia-Pacific, although we don't know if he'll be very interested in sitting around a table with APEC leaders in tedious talks about increased market access and the protection of intellectual property rights," he said.

Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s biggest exporter to the U.S. and Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-led mammoth trade deal whose 12 members comprise nearly 40 percent of global GDP, was viewed as a major setback for Vietnam's economy.

Despite the demise of the TPP, Vietnam has reiterated that it would forge ahead with its reform process and make better domestic preparation to fulfill the commitments of other trade agreements of which Hanoi has been and will be a member.

But by immediately pulling the plugs on the TPP after taking office, Trump has undone the signature policy of his predecessor Barack Obama, who received a boisterous rock-star welcome during his three-day visit to Vietnam last May.

It is in this context that even if Trump decides to come to Vietnam, "I doubt that the Vietnamese public would be as enthralled with a visit by President Trump," said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia analyst at the National War College.

"The thing about Obama was he remained committed to developing regimes and norms, and for providing collective goods in the region. I just don't see Trump being that strategic. It is all short-term transactions for him," Abuza said.

Vietnam and the U.S. normalized relations in 1995 and Bill Clinton made a historic trip to Hanoi five years later. George W. Bush visited Vietnam in 2006, when the APEC summit took place in Hanoi.

"Clinton and Bush moved the relationship from cold war adversaries to partners, each time deepening the relationship further," Abuza said. "Trump's foreign policy making, to date, has been highly erratic. It is hard for the Vietnamese to know where they stand with him."

According to analysts, many in Vietnam had believed that a victory by Hillary Clinton would have guaranteed a continuation of Vietnamese-friendly policies.

It was Clinton that ruffled China's feathers at a regional forum in 2010 in Hanoi by claiming that the U.S. has a “national interest” in freedom of navigation in the flashpoint South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea.

Last month, the then Secretary of State John Kerry made a farewell tour to Vietnam at a time when the Obama administration’s much-touted “Asia pivot" strategy, an apparent move aimed at countering China’s growing influence, remained a tough sell in the region.

Now a Trump presidency means the fate of that strategy is anything but certain.

"I don't believe the Trump administration will have the same interest in Vietnam past administrations have had," Dennis McCornac, a professor of economics at Loyola University in Baltimore (Maryland), said.

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