Vietnam anxious for Trump reassurance

The US navy helps reassure American allies and partners in Asia, but the new administration’s intentions remain as vague as ever.

Vietnam has demanded that China put a stop to cruise ship tours of disputed islands in the South China Sea.

The appeal came amid signs of growing anxiety in Hanoi about ties with the United States and the degree of support the new administration will offer against China’s territorial ambitions.

A cruise ship with 300 Chinese passengers visited the Paracel Islands last week in what was seen as an assertion of Beijing’s sovereignty over territory also claimed by Vietnam.

“Those actions have seriously violated Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Paracel Islands and international law,” said a Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman.

Anxiety in the leadership

Vietnam has sought to avoid open confrontation with Beijing, while relying on closer economic and strategic ties with Washington to counter-balance the growing might of its northern neighbour.

The prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, made what amounted to an open appeal for a visit to the United States last week, as Vietnam seeks reassurances about the Trump administration’s intentions for the region.

“Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc affirmed he is ready to visit US to promote Vietnam-US tie,” said a statement from the Vietnamese government released on Friday.

He said he wanted the United States to continue to be Vietnam’s leading trading partner.

The statement reflects anxiety amongst the leadership in Hanoi that Vietnam is a low priority for the Trump administration, whose Asia focus appears to be fixed on China and the North Korean nuclear threat.

The closing years of the Obama administration saw an assiduous courting of Vietnam, culminating in an unprecedented White House visit by the Communist party boss, the president’s visit to Vietnam last May, and the lifting of an arms embargo dating from the Vietnam War.

Troubling questions

President Trump’s scrapping of the painstakingly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership dealt a blow to Vietnam, and raised troubling questions about President Trump’s commitment to its allies and partners in the region.

In a telephone call after his election, President Trump told Mr Phuc that he did want to improve ties with Vietnam and was happy to meet.

Mr Phuc now wants to see if there is any substance to those statements.

Vietnam also wants a commitment from President Trump to attend this year’s APEC summit, due to be held in Vietnam in November. A no-show would be a further blow to those who see the US presence in Asia as an essential counterweight to China.

Some countries still see hope in redeeming a trade accord from the wreckage of the TPP.

Chile is this week convening a meeting of trade ministers from the affected countries, plus China and South Korea, to consider the options.

Analysts have pointed out that the agreement was always as much about geopolitics as economics,  a tactic to contain China’s drive for regional dominance.

“Whatever it takes”

China has now seized the initiative in the absence of policies from Washington, forcing Vietnam and others to try to make their peace with Beijing as best they can.

“The best thing to deal with South China Sea issue is to bring back the TPP,” said Max Baucus, the former US ambassador to China, in an interview with CNBC

“Repackage it, change it, call it Trump PP — whatever it takes to show to Asian countries, especially Southeast Asian countries and Japan, that we are present and we are part of the solution,” he said.

Vietnam was the first of the TPP signatories to give up on ratification after seeing the way the mood was changing in the United States.

Hanoi may not be pinning its hope on a revival of the pact, but it is anxious for reassurance that it remains a valued player, and has a future as an important strategic and trade partner of the United States.