Top Vietnamese diplomat in US to gauge new Trump administration

By Dien Luong   April 20, 2017 | 12:00 am GMT+7
Top Vietnamese diplomat in US to gauge new Trump administration
The USS John S. McCain at Tien Sa Port in Da Nang, visiting as part of the seventh annual Naval Engagement Activity between the US Navy and the Vietnam People's Navy in October 2016. Photo by AFP/U.S. Embassy in Hanoi

'Vietnam is continuing to explore deepening ties with the U.S., even under the new administration, at all levels of society.'

Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh begins his two-day visit to the U.S. on Thursday at a time when Hanoi is trying to deepen ties with Washington in the face of a tempestuous Trump presidency.

Minh, an American-trained seasoned diplomat, wrote on Twitter on Wednesday that the U.S. is “one of Vietnam's most important partners”. Minh will meet with his American counterpart Rex Tillerson during the visit.

Minh’s trip is set to pave the way for Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to make his first visit to Washington since taking office last year. Deputy Defense Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh is also planning to visit for security talks with U.S. defense officials in the next couple of months, according to Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Last December, President Trump spoke to Prime Minister Phuc by phone and expressed a desire to strengthen the warming ties between the two countries. In late February, Trump sent a letter to President Tran Dai Quang suggesting he was interested in promoting bilateral cooperation.

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

By immediately pulling the plug 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.

However, "Vietnamese officials have wasted little time trying to connect with the new U.S. president and pitching Vietnam’s role as one of the United States’ most reliable partners in Southeast Asia, and in dealing with disputes in the South China Sea," Hiebert said.

Tensions over the flashpoint South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, have pitted Beijing against its smaller neighbors in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam.

Minh’s visit to Washington comes on the heels of his trip to China, which wrapped up on Tuesday. During the visit, Beijing and Hanoi pledged to strengthen bilateral relations through pragmatic cooperation.

The timing of these visits is in line with Vietnam’s long-standing strategy to stabilize ties with Beijing whenever possible, analysts say.

“It is a long-standing tradition that senior Vietnamese officials travel to Beijing before coming to the U.S. Vietnam wants to assure China that it’s not abandoning its deep ties with Beijing,” Hiebert told VnExpress International.

Meanwhile, Vietnam has continued to host high-level meetings with counterparts from Japan, India and the U.S.

“It is clearly sending a message that Hanoi is preparing for a return of tensions with China even as it seeks to improve relations during the current period of relative stability,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said

More quietly, two weeks ago, Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S. Pham Quang Vinh made a historic trip to the West Point, becoming Vietnam's first-ever diplomat to call on America’s premier military academy.

To many analysts, that visit was largely symbolic. But in diplomacy, that matters.

"It demonstrates that Vietnam is continuing to explore deepening ties with the U.S., even under the new administration, at all levels of society,” Hiebert said.

“Yes, it shows that Vietnam wants to continue military ties with the U.S. in the face of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.”