Vietnam’s premier to visit White House as US losing hearts in Southeast Asia

By Dien Luong   May 24, 2017 | 02:40 am GMT+7
Vietnam’s premier to visit White House as US losing hearts in Southeast Asia
Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (C) addresses a regional summit in Hanoi, Vietnam in October 2016. Photo by Reuters

Key tenets of Vietnam's strategy for dealing with China, the TPP are now really in doubt.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will begin his three-day visit to the U.S. next week at a time when Southeast Asia nations are increasingly losing confidence in the Trump administration’s commitment to the region.

Phuc’s visit, at the invitation of President Donald Trump, will begin on May 29, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement late Tuesday. But Trump won’t host Phuc at the White House until May 31, when the two leaders are set to discuss bilateral relations and regional cooperation, according to a statement by the White House.

Last December, President Trump spoke to Prime Minister Phuc on the 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. In April, Phuc’s deputy and foreign minister Pham Binh Minh called on the U.S. in a two-day visit.

Phuc’s trip to Washington will be the first of upcoming visits by Southeast Asian leaders who are seeking to gauge Trump’s policies toward the flashpoint South China Sea, tensions over which have pitted Beijing against its smaller neighbors including Vietnam.

"Southeast Asian nations really want to know that the U.S is committed to peace and security in the region, and that it is not just a chit to be played with the Chinese,” Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia analyst in Washington, told VnExpress International.

The visit is also taking place against the backdrop of the Trump administration losing ground in Southeast Asia, with confidence among partners and allies on the wane.

A recent survey by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore that polled government officials, business representatives, academics, and journalists in Southeast Asia found that around 75 percent of the respondents saw China, not the U.S., as the most influential player now and in the next decade. Two-thirds of respondents also viewed the U.S. less favorably than four months ago, according to the survey.

In what analysts call an unexpected push to put Southeast Asia back on the U.S. radar, in late April Trump also invited the leaders of the Philippines, Thailand, and Singapore to visit Washington.

The White House was quick to pin down the rationale for Trump’s sudden interest in Southeast Asia. At a daily briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer used the threat posed by North Korea as justification for such invitations. White House’s chief of staff Reince Priebus was even more forthright, referring to the need to get “our ducks in a row” on North Korea.

Meanwhile, Trump “has repeatedly stressed his appreciation for Chinese help on North Korea, his 'really great relationship' with President Xi, and his willingness to consider easing pressure on China in other areas like trade in return for Chinese assistance on North Korea,” Malcolm Cook, a fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, wrote in a recent analysis.

According to Cook, the dispute in the South China Sea (which Vietnam calls the East Sea) was far from the top of the agenda in the Trump-Xi meeting recently and there have been no reported U.S. freedom of navigation operations near the Chinese military outposts in the Spratlys, a disputed island chain in the South China Sea, since the end of the Obama administration.

Its dispute “could become an issue where Trump chooses to go easier on China than his predecessor,” Cook wrote.

“Such an outcome would further facilitate China’s unlawful activities in the South China Sea and raise pressure on affected Southeast Asian states to either directly criticize China’s actions (something they are loath to do) or accept increased Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea.”

PM Phuc’s visit comes on the heels of the Trump administration's budget proposal that seeks to convert some of America’s foreign military grants to loans, part of a larger effort to slash spending on diplomacy, aid and programs abroad by more than 29 percent. Vietnam, the Philippines – the U.S.’s treaty ally in Southeast Asia, and several other Asian countries could be affected by this move.

Immediately after taking office, Trump pulled the plug on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mammoth U.S.-led trade deal whose 12 members make up nearly 40 percent of global GDP, a move considered a major setback for Vietnam's exports-oriented economy.

At a regional meeting last Sunday in Hanoi, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer reiterated that the U.S. would not return to the TPP after 11 remaining countries earlier agreed to look at how they could move ahead without it. He said the U.S. favored bilateral over multilateral trade deals and he expected a series of agreements in the region, where he was attending a meeting of ministers from Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) countries, Reuters reported.

Analysts say PM Phuc’s upcoming visit to Washington will bring more clues about Trump's policies towards Vietnam, and the region in general.

"I think the leadership in Hanoi has felt that the food has fallen out from them in the past years,” Abuza said. “Key tenets of their strategy for dealing with China, the TPP, or continued U.S. engagement, are now really in doubt,” he said.

“No country in the past few years did more than Vietnam to engage the U.S. and ensure that it was committed to regional peace, prosperity, and freedom of the seas, than Vietnam. They have a lot riding on this.”

Officially, no Vietnamese leader has advocated aligning the country with any military power. They have also publicly proclaimed that they will avoid playing one country off against another.

But a Pew survey in 2014 showed that 76 percent of Vietnamese embraced the U.S. as a helpful ally. According to the survey, an overwhelming majority of young Vietnamese (89 percent) look more favorably on the U.S. than their seniors (64 percent).

Trump is also scheduled to visit Vietnam this November for the APEC summit in the central city of Da Nang. Even though it is not clear yet if his trip will also entail an official state-level visit to Hanoi, “Vietnam’s importance will only grow with time, as the U.S. seeks to build partnerships in Asia,” Lyle Morris, a policy analyst at RAND Corporation, said.

Other regional leaders will be watching closely to see whether Phuc can get the White House to pay attention to things besides North Korea, analysts say.

"Of course, the leaders of Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore, who are all expected to visit Washington in the coming months, will watch the visit carefully to assess Trump's interest in engaging Southeast Asia," said Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"To be sure, China, whose president has already met with Trump, will watch the visit carefully to try to understand how intensely the new administration plans to engage with region economically, politically, and militarily," Hiebert said.