Vietnam eyes Trump moves with trepidation

Trump ditches the TPP

President Trump’s first days in office will have confirmed many of Vietnam’s fears about his intentions for the region, and the waves of instability that can be expected during his administration.

Vietnam’s communist leaders have long anticipated the demise of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which was formally ditched by the president on Monday.

However, the eagerness with which China has sought to take advantage of the vacuum being left by the United States will have brought home to Vietnam the full implications of the revolution shaking Washington.

Even more alarming for Hanoi is the aggressively confrontational rhetoric emanating from Washington and Beijing over the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The exchanges have made Vietnam all the more anxious for a message of reassurance of some kind from the Trump administration about its plans for the region.

The message so far is deeply troubling for those in the Vietnamese leadership who sought closer ties with the United States in an attempt to balance the growing power of China.

Reckless aggression

On the one hand, Mr Trump has underlined the US’s reputation as an unreliable ally and partner by tearing up the TPP, the centrepiece of President Obama’s “pivot to Asia” – a strategy intended to reassure China’s nervous neighbours of American support.

On the other hand, the new administration has lost no time in throwing down the gauntlet to China in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has been grateful for the US military presence in the region, and its defence of free navigation through waters claimed by China, but it does not want to be dragged into conflict by reckless aggression from the new administration in Washington.

Rex Tillerson, now confirmed as the new secretary of state, alarmed many with his recent statement that the US could seek to deny China access to its newly built islands in the South China Sea.

That position now appears to have been backed up by Sean Spicer, the new White House spokesman. He said on Monday that the US would defend international territories in the South China Sea that had been taken over by one country.

The statements have led to speculation that the US administration could be planning a blockade of China’s possessions in the Spratlys. Other commentators conjecture that the comments may be more limited in scope, referring only to China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, in the north of region, and concern that China is planning to build a military base there.

US standing suffered severe damege

Another feared scenario is that the US will provoke a trade war with China, and attempt to improve its bargaining position by playing the Taiwan card, a rejection of the One China policy that Beijing will see as a direct assault on its sovereignty.

Whatever the eventual policies that emerge, what was left of America’s standing as a mature and reliable partner in Asia has already suffered severe damage.

Mr Trump’s protectionist and isolationist instincts, and insistence on “America First”, will also undercut American soft power in East Asia and the rest of the world.

The main beneficiary of such a change is likely to be China. Vietnam and others have already taken the precaution of trying to mend fences with Beijing after earlier attempts to resist its growing economic and military power.

China has long maintained that the US does not have the long term strength and consistency to maintain its dominant military and economic position in the western Pacific. Politicians from Hanoi to Manila, Seoul and Tokyo, will now be forced to consider that the Chinese might have been right all along.