Vietnam’s diplomatic dance with the US and China scores high marks

Huong Le Thu says Hanoi managed to maintain its approach of pursuing a regional balance by placating Trump at the Apec summit while seeking cooperation with China and other international partners

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 12:10pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 November, 2017, 7:35pm

It has been a big week for Vietnam’s diplomacy, as it hosted the Apec summit for a second time. The main attention was on US President Donald Trump’s first multilateral appearance in the Asia-Pacific region. The regional actors anticipated an articulation of the US Asia strategy while, for Vietnam, the big question was whether trade would come between the blossoming Washington-Hanoi relationship.

Since Trump’s election, there have been signs of America’s turn inwards or, as some have put it, abdication of global leadership, including its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump at least proved consistent at the Apec meeting, conveying that he will not let anyone take advantage of America.

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Many regional partners anticipated a stronger American presence in the region due to China’s growing influence. Vietnam has sought balanced relations with the two but with regional dynamics rapidly shifting, it has cut an increasingly lonely figure in attempting to keep a consistent strategy resisting great power coercion.

Rapprochement with the US has been careful, and not without challenges. But just as momentum for speeding up defence cooperation began under the Obama administration, Trump’s protectionist turn posed new questions. Vietnam engaged Trump, making concessions to encourage a better relationship. In May, Prime Minister Nguyen Xhan Phuc visited Washington, resulting in trade deals to ameliorate the perception of Vietnam taking advantage of America. Trump’s visit to Hanoi brought more commercial gain, with US$12 billion in orders for engines and services for the aviation and energy sectors. Vietnam is now in Trump’s good books.

But, while most attention and anticipation accompanied Trump and the development of US-Vietnam relations, many other lower-profile but relevant deals have been reached. Among them is a strategic partnership with Australia and comprehensive partnership with Canada, plus New Zealand, committed to supporting Vietnamese peacekeeping forces.

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After Trump’s joint press conference with Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Hanoi. This was Xi’s first state visit after his successful 19th party congress. The visit resulted in reassurances of cooperation for the common goal – a stable and peaceful neighbourhood.

Despite the US signs of downplaying economic multilateralism, alongside the Apec meetings, important talks on multilateral initiatives took place. Among them, discussions about resurrecting the TPP – renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – alongside the Quadrilateral Defence Dialogue between the US, Australia, Japan and India. Both initiatives are of strong interest to Vietnam. Both represent opportunities for the diversification and multilateralisation that Vietnam is committed to. The partnership agreement would be a major economic boost and diversification of economic ties with China, while the Quad, provided it goes ahead, would offer balance to the Asia-Pacific maritime picture.

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Vietnam’s careful diplomatic strategy scored highly during Apec week. A positive balance with both the US and China will remain a strenuous endeavour, but investing in important regional partnerships is one way to help.

Dr Huong Le Thu is a visiting fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University and an associate fellow of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore