VIETNAM’S BALANCING ACT BE­TWEEN U.S., CHINA

Vietnam is boost­ing ties with China, United States

New Straits Times - - World -

VIETNAM could hardly have asked for more: a United States war­ship chal­leng­ing Chi­nese claims in the South China Sea, a meet­ing at the White House, and six new coastal pa­trol boats.

All are signs of a US com­mit­ment which Vietnam had feared was wan­ing un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump just as the South­east Asian coun­try had emerged as the most force­ful op­po­nent of China’s claim to one of the world’s most im­por­tant sea­ways.

But un­cer­tain over how en­dur­ing US sup­port will be and wary of re­ly­ing on any ally, Vietnam is just as care­fully cul­ti­vat­ing ties with an­cient foe China.

“Vietnam doesn’t want an im­bal­ance of power in the re­gion that could lead to war,” said Tran Cong Truc, a for­mer head of the Na­tional Boundary Com­mis­sion who spent decades de­fend­ing Vietnam’s mar­itime claims.

The meet­ing with Trump next Wed­nes­day is a coup for Prime Min­is­ter Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi (in­set), mark­ing three years in power, yes­ter­day in­au­gu­rated the coun­try’s long­est bridge that spans the Brahma­pu­tra River in the north­east­ern state of As­sam. The 9.15km Dhola-Sadiya bridge, strong enough to carry a 60 tonne bat­tle tank, will re­duce travel time from As­sam to the fron­tier state of Arunachal Pradesh. will be the first South­east Asian leader to visit the White House un­der the new ad­min­is­tra­tion.

It re­flected calls, letters, diplo­matic con­tacts and lower-level vis­its that started long be­fore Trump took of­fice in Wash­ing­ton, where Vietnam re­tained a lob­by­ist at US$30,000 (RM128,083) a month.

Just as im­por­tant sym­bol­i­cally for Vietnam this week was hav­ing a US war­ship sail close to an ar­ti­fi­cial is­land be­ing built by China in the South China Sea, where Bei­jing’s ex­ten­sive claims are dis­puted by Vietnam and four other coun­tries.

Viet­namese of­fi­cials and for­eign en­voys fa­mil­iar with Hanoi’s po­si­tion said it had been lob­by­ing hard for what for­mer en­emy the US called a “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion” mission.

Fur­ther un­der­lin­ing its sup­port, the US de­liv­ered six coastal pa­trol ves­sels to Vietnam this week.

“Vietnam’s fu­ture pros­per­ity de­pends upon a sta­ble and peace­ful mar­itime en­vi­ron­ment,” US Am­bas­sador Ted Osius said.

Such words help to ease Viet­namese con­cerns at be­ing a lonely voice chal­leng­ing Bei­jing in the South China Sea, since Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte has grown closer to China.

Vietnam was dis­ap­pointed when Trump ditched the strate­gic Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship (TPP) trade pact and fo­cused trade pol­icy on re­duc­ing deficits — Vietnam’s US$32 bil­lion sur­plus with the US was the sixth big­gest last year.

Viet­namese nerves were fur­ther jan­gled by Trump’s re­cent cosi­ness with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in try­ing to tackle North Korea’s nu­clear pro­gramme.

“The to­tal fix­a­tion on North Korea had Vietnam wor­ried that the South China Sea would be left wide open,” said Carl Thayer, a Vietnam ex­pert at Aus­tralia’s Univer­sity of New South Wales.

In Wash­ing­ton, State De­part­ment spokesman Ka­t­rina Adams said “the US-Vietnam part­ner­ship is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of US for­eign pol­icy in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion”.

But a for­mer se­nior US of­fi­cial said Trump could be ex­pected to com­plain to Vietnam’s prime min­is­ter about the size of its trade sur­plus.

Un­der Trump bud­get plans, Vietnam could also find US mil­i­tary do­na­tions be­com­ing loans in­stead.

In the face of the un­cer­tainty since Trump took of­fice, Hanoi has been pay­ing as much at­ten­tion to Bei­jing as to Wash­ing­ton.

Pres­i­dent Tran Dai Quang com­bined a state visit with his at­ten­dance at China’s Belt and Road sum­mit. Com­mu­nist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, ar­guably the most pow­er­ful man in Vietnam, was in Bei­jing days be­fore Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion.

Af­ter both those vis­its, the coun­tries em­pha­sised their readi­ness to keep the peace in the South China Sea.

Just as telling, the Viet­namese coast guard sent a ves­sel on a visit to China for the first time early this month.

“‘Si­mul­ta­ne­ously co­op­er­ate and fight’ is a very prac­ti­cal pol­icy. Vietnam never kneels or sur­ren­ders be­fore China’s open vi­o­la­tion of its le­git­i­mate rights, but it does not give China any ex­cuse to use its power to cre­ate con­flict,” said Truc.

EPA

AFP PIC

A United States war­ship chal­leng­ing Chi­nese claims in the South China Sea is a sign of a US com­mit­ment Vietnam had feared was wan­ing un­der Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

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