The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam has sought to assuage fears of the Trump administration’s waning commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, but analysts take the assurance of continuity with a grain of salt.
“Our policy with regard to this part of the world has much more continuity than change in it,” Ambassador Ted Osius told VnExpress in an interview last week. (Read an excerpt of the interview here.)
“The fact is we have fundamental interests at stake in the Asia-Pacific region. We have to continue to be deeply engaged in Asia, and it’s very helpful for the United States to have deepening partnerships. We have more traditional alliance relationships in this region than anywhere else,” he said.
“We also have very important, powerful partnerships in this region that are beneficial to us and to our partners. And among those powerful partnerships is our partnership with Vietnam.”
Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc paid a three-day visit to the U.S. in late May, where he met with President Donald Trump and discussed trade issues. According to analysts, Phuc’s visit and his meeting with Trump was, by all counts, positive with trade issues topping the agenda. A White House statement said both sides welcomed the announcement of more than $8 billion in new commercial deals.
In the interview, Osius also touted the significance of Phuc’s trip as “the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the new administration.”
Analysts also concur that Phuc and his fellow regional leaders, during their trips to Washington, were seeking to gauge Trump’s policies toward the flashpoint South China Sea, tensions over which have pitted Beijing against its smaller neighbors including Vietnam.
The Trump administration has been 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.
Though the South China Sea was included in the joint statement after the meeting between Phuc and Trump, it “was merely a reiteration of positions forged over the last couple years,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said.
“There is still no policy for the South China Sea or the region more broadly from this [meeting], and we should not expect one,” Poling said. “It will not be enough to reassure Asian partners in the wake of the president’s disastrous European trip.”
U.S. President Donald Trump greets Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 31, 2017. Photo by Reuters
In 2011, as China began flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, which Vietnam refers to as the East Sea, President Barack Obama announced America’s vaguely assertive plans for a strategic “pivot” or “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific region. Now a Trump presidency means the fate of that strategy is anything but certain.
In May, the USS Dewey, an American guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, one of a chain of man-made islands China has built and fortified to assert what it calls its sovereignty in the South China Sea. The reef has been occupied and controlled by China since 1995 but is also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines. The U.N. says nations can establish the breadth of their territorial sea up to a limit of 12 nautical miles.
The media has interpreted the move as the first American challenge to China’s claims to the flashpoint waterways under the Trump administration. It’s the first freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP, in the strategically important and resources-rich waters.
But analysts say it may be hasty to jump to conclusions on Washington’s unwavering commitment to the troubled waters. “One FONOP is not enough. They must be made regular,” Poling said.
Asked when the next FONOP would be conducted, Osius remained non-committal.
“I don’t know. I expect them to continue on a regular basis, just as they did in the past,” he said. “We continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That has not changed. No matter what lines are drawn, we and other navies and coast guards in the region are continuing to operate freely in the region and all of us have an interest that those operations continue.”
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.
The U.S. has maintained that it will not return to the TPP after 11 remaining countries earlier agreed to look at how they could move ahead without it. The new U.S. administration has instead indicated that it will favor bilateral over multilateral trade deals, including one with Vietnam.
Amidst uncertainty, to some analysts, the best approach to the Trump administration should be a no-nonsense one.
“Vietnamese and Asian leaders in general, get Trump,” Zachary Abuza, a Washington-based Southeast Asia analyst, said.
“He’s transactional, nothing more, nothing less. So the Vietnamese came into the White House meeting with deals to throw him,” Abuza said.
“The Vietnamese have to think strategically: they need to keep the U.S. involved in the region, committed to regional peace and stability.”
Story by Viet Anh, Dien Luong