The cornerstone of President Trump’s trip to Hanoi may have been his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but bilateral talks with Vietnamese leaders that occurred while Trump was there emphasize the administration’s commitment to combating an increasingly influential China.
“I think [the administration’s] view is that Vietnam and the U.S. have a lot of security interests in common, and the top of that of course is concern about China’s maritime activities,” said Zack Cooper, an American Enterprise Institute research fellow who focuses on U.S. alliances in Asia. “That Vietnam has pushed back so firmly against some of China’s activity in the South China Sea is something the administration has noticed, and they want partners that are going to stand up firmly for their interests.”
Trump’s visit to Hanoi for his second summit with Kim opened with meetings with Vietnam’s president and prime minister, as well as a signing of commercial trade deals worth more than $21 billion. The agreements are expected to support more than 83,000 U.S. jobs, a senior administration official said.
Bilateral talks with Vietnamese officials focused on a number of issues, including trade, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and “ways to strengthen the United States-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, including by deepening political, security, economic, and people-to-people ties, and through cooperation on humanitarian and legacy of war issues,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
[Related: No deal: Trump-Kim summit ends abruptly]
This week's trip to Vietnam marked Trump’s second visit to the country since assuming the presidency. In November 2017, Trump visited Da Nang for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting and Hanoi for bilateral talks with then-President Tran Dai Quang and other top officials. Additionally, the USS Carl Vinson made a historic visit to Da Nang in March 2018 — the first time an aircraft carrier has docked in the country since the Vietnam War’s end.
Hanoi this week provided the backdrop for the summit between Trump and Kim, which was ultimately cut short and ended without a deal due to a stalemate over sanctions. The selection of Vietnam’s capital city for the gathering was likely intentional, Director of Korean Studies at the Center for National Interest Harry Kazianis said.
“Hanoi is desperate for a better relationship with Washington and would like a free trade agreement with the Trump administration to ensure it is not entirely dependent on Chinese markets and consumers,” Kazianis, an expert on the Koreas, China, and the Asia-Pacific, said. “Vietnam also would love to purchase large amounts of advanced U.S. military equipment, and I have even heard Hanoi-based diplomats talk of a brewing U.S.-Vietnam alliance against China in the future.”
These reasons are likely why the U.S. and Vietnam pushed for Hanoi to be the site of Trump’s summit with Kim.
“It shows the world how much Washington trusts Hanoi to facilitate delicate talks, and that both sides consider their bilateral ties critical,” Kazianis said.
Indeed, both the U.S. and Vietnam are cautious of China’s growing economic and military power. Vietnam is involved in a territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, while the U.S. is in a trade war with Beijing and currently negotiating a trade deal.
To counter China’s influence, the administration sees in Vietnam a strategic partner.
"There is a growing sense of worry within the Trump administration that indeed the challenge presented by a rising China is one that won't end even if a successful trade agreement is signed — and will remain a concern for decades,” Kazianis said. “Because of this, administration officials have been blunt with me that they consider Vietnam one of several new partners that can help push back against China's bullying and hegemonic tendencies in the South China Sea and all over the Indo-Pacific.”
The Trump administration has put particular emphasis on Vietnam, Indonesia, and India as the most crucial countries in the Indo-Pacific region, Cooper said.
“They’re big countries with big populations and rapidly growing economies, and the administration sees them as potential partners in efforts to balance China’s rise,” he said.
But the U.S. and Vietnam both have to tread carefully. A concern for the U.S. — particularly on Capitol Hill — is the Vietnamese government’s attitude toward human rights and basic freedoms.
“I think the current administration is less likely to see those as huge impediments to strengthening those relationships compared to the Obama team and compared to Capitol Hill where there really are pretty serious constraints,” Cooper said.
For Vietnam, Cooper said the country is careful not to pick sides between the U.S. and Beijing given its past conflicts with China.
“What you see from Vietnam,” he said, “is they’re trying to draw closer to the U.S., but not in ways that deeply anger Beijing.”