U.S. President Donald Trump touched down in Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport on Saturday evening to pay a state visit to Vietnam the next day after ramming home a strong message on trade at an Asia-Pacific summit in the central city of Da Nang.
Security has been beefed up ahead of Trump’s arrival. Photo by VnExpress
Addressing the key Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit on Friday, in a striking departure from the standard stance on trade by his predecessors, Trump highlighted the “America First” policy that he said would protect American jobs and prevent other countries from cashing in on his country.
Trump was leaving Da Nang at a time when countries in the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which Trump nixed right after taking office, have agreed on the core elements to move ahead without the U.S.
Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s biggest exporter to the U.S. Many in Vietnam had hoped the TPP, a mammoth trade deal whose 12 members would have made up nearly 40 percent of global GDP, would play a crucial role as a cushion for Hanoi against China.
It is in this context that “Trump’s immediate scrapping of the TPP did much to unnerve the Vietnamese leadership, who saw the agreement as more than a trade deal, but as a strategic anchor for the United States,” said Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia expert at the National War College in Washington.
Trump holding fast to his “America first” policy at the APEC Summit is indicative of “his insistence on rewriting bilateral trade agreements, and eschewing multilateral agreements”, Abuza said.
But still, Vietnam just cannot afford to alienate the American president, no matter how unpredictable his diplomacy is.
Last May, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc became the first Southeast Asian leader to pay an official visit to the White House, in a bid to gauge Trump’s policies towards the flashpoint East Sea, internationally known as the South China, Sea tensions over which have pitted Beijing against Hanoi.
“Vietnam has proven to be highly pragmatic in fostering early engagements with the Trump administration,” said Le Hong Hiep, a Vietnamese research fellow at the Iseas Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “Vietnamese diplomats have also learned how to play along with Trump’s transactional diplomacy.”
Typically, heads of state on an official visit to Vietnam will meet the country’s triumvirate of leaders – Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, President Tran Dai Quang and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. President Quang will host the formal welcoming ceremony.
Anticipation has been building for Trump’s upcoming visit to a country where Obama received a boisterous rock-star welcome last year.
“Presidents Obama and Clinton were very popular in Vietnam and thousands of Vietnamese came out to greet them,” Murray Hiebert, an expert on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said.
“I’m not sure Trump is equally popular or as well known, but I think many Vietnamese are curious about the new U.S. president,” Hiebert said.
On the diplomatic front, to many analysts, Trump’s agenda seems pretty clear.
“His style of diplomacy is very simple and very transactional,” Abuza said. “From what we have seen of Trump’s international visits so far, it’s going to be a lot of ‘what are you going to do for us?’ This is red meat to his base.”
Right after Trump on Sunday, Chinese President Xi Jingping will also pay a state visit to Vietnam. At the APEC Summit, Xi, who spoke directly after Trump, sought to cash himself as a champion of globalization and economic openness, throwing support behind multilateral trade deals.
“China watches any developments in US -Vietnamese relations with concern,” Abuza said. “They have gained dividends from Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP.”