The Second Trump-Kim Summit: Reflections on Vietnam, US, and China

The second Trump-Kim Summit Hanoi is scheduled on 27-28 February 2019 at Hanoi and there are several reasons for the choice of this venue. The US Department of State stated that the venue “reflects the possibility for peace and prosperity”, and that the US-Vietnam relationship in the post-Cold War period has “moved past conflict and division towards the thriving partnership we enjoy today,” which would be symbolic of a possible future of US-DPRK relationship. Much can be reflected, however, on the current state of US-Vietnam relationship.

Vietnam is hoping that the Trump-Kim Summit would bring good will from both China and the US. It will also showcase Vietnam’s adroitness and flexibility as a country that desires peace and facilitates peace-building efforts. It will also cement Vietnam’s position as a major player in the politics of the region, a position endowed by its geography of being neighbour to China and a friend of the US.

US-Vietnam relationship has not been a straight course leading to an even-keel, and it took many years to reach the current levels of friendship. After the US withdrew from southern Vietnam, the northern communist government also felt there was no major power it could not fight, and win, after having defeated the French in 1954. Powerful egos on both sides precluded closing gaps in the relationship. The situation was further complicated by the Cold War, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the left-leaning threats the US faced in Latin America, and the need for the US to court China to balance the Soviet Union. Also, after 1975, Vietnam was embroiled in a decade-long military conflict with China. Militarily it did not lose, but US and China stood behind Southeast Asian countries in rejecting Vietnamese advances in Cambodia.

Rhetoric about doing its part for world peace aside, Vietnam is expected to gain much goodwill by hosting the Trump-Kim Summit. Vietnam is expected to gain a stronger standing in its position among the major powers. It is still locked in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, and the US sees Vietnam as part of a great wall of containment alongside the south eastern flank of China. Vietnamese military especially naval capability is far below that of China and in case a maritime military conflict breaks out, Vietnam would wish for assistance from other major military powers, and having such an option is itself a deterrence. Therefore, it is as much in Vietnam's own interest as it is in the interest of the US to enhance bilateral military cooperation especially when dealing with naval contingencies. Vietnam has lobbied the US to lift embargo on sale of lethal arms, which was finally removed in 2016 during President Obama visit to Vietnam. This has not meant an immediate rush of US military hardware for Vietnam, but it is another option for Vietnam.

From US' perspective, it had insisted on Vietnam improving its human rights record, which is a short hand for better treatment of political dissidents as well as liberalisation of its political system to allow competition and pluralism. The Vietnamese have stood much of their grounds against the US demands, though some concessions were made in the last two decades without affecting Party control of the country. In return, Vietnam has also demanded concessions from the US including visits by high-level leaders. Although the bilateral relationship is thriving, swings in US policies cannot be discounted.

But Vietnamese domestic grounds, quite unseen to those who do not examine Vietnam closely, are also shifting. There, power of the social media is now considerable, and there are some instances of social media bringing accountability of major policies of the government. Although foreign policy making is still – rightly or wrongly in Vietnam's case – within a black box, debates on the merits of policies, and even Vietnam's position with regard to US and China, are vigorous. The social media there is US-leaning and China-condemning.

China favours US-DPRK rapprochement so long as the DPRK does not settle on anything that is against the Chinese interests. China has had its core interests identified (Tibet, Taiwan, South China Sea); getting the US military out of the Korean Peninsula, from Japan, and to reduce US capacity to interfere in any warfare across the Taiwan Straits and in the South China Sea would be assisting Chinese core interest.

The current US-DPRK rapprochement is likely to be a long-drawn affair and may outlast the Trump presidency. All this while, Vietnam will be closely watching the DPRK relationship with both China and the US, which would have lessons for its own triangular relationship with two major powers.

Dr David Koh is an analyst on Southeast Asia and international politics based in Singapore. He owns his own consulting business for politics and business that conducts analysis of Southeast Asia for clients from governments and businesses.

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