Trump victory alarms Vietnam

Donald Trump's victory is likely to mean big changes in US Asia policy. Photo courtesy AFP

Donald Trump’s victory is likely to mean big changes in US Asia policy. Photo courtesy AFP

The shock waves from Donald Trump’s victory are only just beginning to reverberate around the world: for Vietnam, the surprise win of the maverick property developer and reality tv star is deeply unsettling and threatens severe strategic consequences.

Mr Trump’s foreign policy objectives remained vague to the point of incoherence during the long election campaign, but his instincts are unmistakably protectionist and isolationist.

Vietnam, which saw much advantage in the “pivot to Asia”, announced by Hillary Clinton in 2011, must now face the likelihood that the initiative is dead in the water.

Hanoi sought and achieved closer political, military and economic ties with a US administration eager to strengthen its presence in the region.

Mr Trump, with his “America First” rhetoric, seems much less interested in helping friends and allies hold the line against China’s expansionism.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, already wilting on the vine, is likely to be an early victim of the Trump administration.

Vietnam was the country with most to gain from the TPP, gaining tariff free access to the world’s largest market, and tying Hanoi into a community of American friends and partners.

Ratification of the pact came to be seen as a key test of America’s commitment to Asia

Its demise will be celebrated by China as a strategic victory, and signal to Beijing’s neighbours that the US no longer has the will or consistency to protect them in the long term.

Dangerously destabilising

Mr Trump stated on the campaign trail that Asian countries would have to take responsibility for their own defence.

“If somebody attacks Japan, we have to immediately go and start World War III, OK? If we get attacked, Japan doesn’t have to help us. Somehow, that doesn’t sound so fair,” he said at a rally late last year.

He also indicated that South Korea would have to pay far more for its own defence.

The then candidate even suggested that Japan might have to go nuclear if that was necessary to guarantee its defence against China and North Korea.

Such an approach, if implemented, would be dangerously destabilising for the entire Asia Pacific region and beyond.

Mr Trump was much given to spontaneous temporising on the campaign trail, and no-one knows what a Trump foreign policy will look like in practice.

It is possible, some analysts say, that he will build up the US military and aim to show strength in the face of China’s economic and military growth. It is not a scenario that countries such as Vietnam can rely on.

Liberal use of tariffs

The candidate was unpredictable, sensationalist and contradictory on the campaign trail.

But he was extremely consistent, to the point of monomania, about one thing: he wanted to become president to look after the interests of ordinary Americans.

He said tariffs would be used liberally to give the US the advantage back after a series of dubious trade deals.

Export-led developing economies such as Vietnam can expect little consideration from such a leader.

Pro-democracy activists and human rights campaigners in Vietnam also have reason for alarm at the US election result.

Mr Trump has spoken admiringly of authoritarian rulers, most notably Vladimir Putin.

He is unlikely to take much interest in the struggle of civil society activists for a more open society in Vietnam – a struggle of little interest to the hard pressed blue collar workers in rust belt states that propelled him to power.