VIETNAM’S BALANCING ACT BETWEEN U.S., CHINA
Vietnam is boosting ties with China, United States
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.
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.