Given how closely Barack Obama was associated with the deepening of US-Vietnam ties, the change of administrations in the United States inevitably raised questions about the relationship's future.
From Vietnam's perspective, some of Donald Trump's administration's early moves raised alarm bells, especially its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was a major disappointment for Vietnam. Moreover, despite the Trump administration's continuation of freedom-of-navigation operations, there is a perception in Vietnam that the South China Sea issue figures relatively low in Trump's foreign policy priorities.
In fact, after nine months in office, and amid growing tension in the region, there is little sign that Trump is formulating a comprehensive strategy for Asia. The North Korean nuclear crisis has absorbed most of the US's attention in Asia. Moreover, Trump's initial talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping led some in South-East Asia to fear that a softer US line on the South China Sea could be traded for China's cooperation on North Korea.
Despite their concerns, Vietnamese leaders were proactive in engaging directly with the new US President. In May this year, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was the first South-East Asian head of state, and the third from Asia (after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China's Xi) to visit Trump after he took office. The meeting was considered successful and set a positive tone for the relationship.
The US has a large trade deficit with Vietnam, which totalled $US32 billion last year. During the presidential campaign, Trump listed Vietnam as one of several countries flooding the US economy with cheap goods. The US has also criticised Vietnam's lack of protection for intellectual property rights, placing it on its watch list last year. During his visit in May, the Vietnamese Prime Minister tried to alleviate these and other concerns. Phuc signed a $US15-17 billion agreement on the exchange of technological goods and services, which Trump described as a win-win outcome: "They [Vietnam] just made a very large order in the United States; we appreciate that – for many billions of dollars, which means jobs for the United States and great, great equipment for Vietnam."
The joint statement from the meeting reaffirmed the US' commitment to the countries' existing partnership. The Vietnamese were reassured by a US pledge to continue defence ties but also to expand cooperation in intelligence.
Nevertheless, in contrast to the Vietnam-US leaders' exchanges in 2016, when Obama visited Hanoi, the meeting seemed transactional in nature, in line with the new President's foreign policy approach. Vietnamese leaders are trying to respond to the shift, hoping not only to boost bilateral relations, but also to draw Trump's attention to geoeconomic and geostrategic challenges in the region.
As a follow-up, the Vietnamese Defence Minister, Ngo Xuan Lich, visited Washington in August. US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis confirmed that naval cooperation between the two countries would expand: "The two leaders agreed that a strong US-Vietnam defence relationship promotes regional and global security. This relationship is based on mutual respect and common interests, including the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and globally, respect for international law, and recognition of national sovereignty."
The mention of national sovereignty was very well received in Vietnam as a strong signal of US support. It's possible that, as a follow-up to the meeting, a US aircraft carrier may dock at Cam Ranh Bay next year. It will be the first time a US warship has visited the port since the Vietnam War.
Military cooperation has also accelerated. In May, the US Pacific Partnership 17 – a multilateral mission aimed at improving medical preparedness for disasters – visited Khanh Hoa and Da Nang in central Vietnam. In the same month, the US transferred a former US Coast Guard Hamilton-class high-endurance cutter to Vietnam. The US is also supporting Vietnam's participation in UN peacekeeping operations.
All of these activities illustrate how habits of cooperation are gradually but steadily building between the two countries. The current eagerness to cooperate on the Vietnamese side is noticeably stronger than a few years ago.
Huong Le Thu is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University's Coral Bell school of Asia-Pacific affairs. This is an extract from a Lowy Institute analysis: US-Vietnam Relations Under Trump.
A US aircraft carrier may dock at Cam Ranh Bay next year, which would be the first time a US warship visits the port since the Vietnam War.
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