- - Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Nations can’t choose their neighbors, but Vietnam, a country long buffeted by war, is proving it can certainly choose its friends.

President Trump on Wednesday will greet Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House, the clearest sign to date that Washington and Hanoi, once-implacable foes burdened by a bloody and tragic history, increasingly share overlapping strategic interests and a mutual outlook on the region and the world.

It’s a measure of how far the two countries have come — and how large Vietnam looms in the emerging Trump administration strategy for Asia — that Mr. Phuc will be the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House since Mr. Trump’s election.

The arrival of Vietnam’s delegation of more than 100 diplomats and business leaders bolsters hopes that Mr. Trump will make the trip in November to attend the APEC Summit that Vietnam is hosting in Da Nang. As a sign of expanding business interests between the two countries, the Washington-based U.S.-ASEAN Business Council is hosting a formal dinner reception.

“If the two countries enter a mutually beneficial free trade agreement that was recently suggested by many American firms doing business in Vietnam, such an agreement will reflect the growing trend and vast potential of our economies and help create more jobs for Americans and Vietnamese alike,” said Tran Tuan, Minister of Industry and Trade.

While Vietnam was disappointed when Mr. Trump torpedoed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, it is eager to know what the new administration plans for economy and trade under its “America First” approach. Mr. Phuc hopes to limit the fallout from the TPP’s collapse by offering to negotiate a bilateral trade agreement with Washington.

“They also want to get a reading on how the Trump administration plans to engage the region economically after the president canceled the TPP, in which Vietnam would have been a major beneficiary,” said Murray Hiebert, a senior adviser and Southeast Asia director at the D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Both nations have a common interest in containing China’s island-building activities, and U.S. defense officials regard Vietnam as a key partner in efforts to patrol contested waters. Just last week, the Trump administration agreed to give Vietnam’s coast guard six U.S.-made coastal patrol boats.

Since Washington lifted the arms embargo last year, Vietnam has been in talks with Western and U.S. arms manufacturers about its need to boost the country’s fleet of fighter jets, helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft. Analysts say this regional security cooperation in the South China Sea now includes joint naval exercises, and U.S. Navy and Coast Guard vessels have been allowed to dock for repairs and maintenance in Cam Ranh Bay, a former American deepwater port during the Vietnam War.

A tighter security alliance with the United States is also a top goal of Mr. Phuc’s visit, said Michael Green, who served on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration and was in the White House in 2005 when Vietnam’s then-prime minister made a historic first-ever visit to Washington since the war.

Mr. Green, who is now vice president of the CSIS, predicted that Mr. Phuc would seek to forge an alliance with Mr. Trump similar to the one the new president has formed with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

“I know they want to lock in the kind of relationship that Abe did,” said Mr. Green. “Vietnam is not a country that wants to distance itself from the United States because Donald Trump is president.”

The China threat

For the United States, the stakes are high as well. A U.S. Navy ship in recent days set off alarms when it sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s artificial islands as part of the Navy’s broad “freedom-of-navigation operations.”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said these are routine operations that the Navy has been conducting since 1979 and are not meant to be “confrontational,” he added. “We do them in the South China Sea. We do them all over the world. They sure get a lot of attention when they happen.”

It is no secret that Vietnam regards China as an existential threat, and Mr. Phuc would like to see the U.S. more engaged in the South China Sea, according to CSIS military strategist Anthony Cordesman.

Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries believe only the United States can curb China’s aggressive moves to assert broad sovereignty claims in the heavily trafficked waterway. One option for the Trump administration is to increase arms sales or transfers of equipment to allies like Vietnam to help shore up their navies.

Vietnam’s defense budget in 2016 was about $4 billion, and it received $12 million in foreign military aid from the United States, Mr. Cordesman said. There has been speculation for some time that the U.S. will sell or transfer older models of the U.S. Navy P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft to Vietnam. Such an acquisition would make sense, said Mr. Cordesman, as it would give Vietnam a modern capability to patrol waters and track submarines.

“The P-3 is not the cutting edge, but it’s modern enough, and it’s affordable,” he said.

A lot of Vietnam’s military equipment is out-of-date equipment supplied by Russia. The Pentagon might consider providing some newer ships and weapons to replace aging missile corvettes and frigates, or it could help modernize older vessels with U.S.-made anti-ship missiles, air-defense systems and sensors. Under Mr. Trump’s proposed budget plans, Vietnam could also find U.S. military grants becoming loans instead.

A military force that is “interoperable” with the United States sends a powerful message, said Mr. Cordesman. “It doesn’t have to be a threat to China, but it certainly acts as a signal and, to some extent, a deterrent,” he said. Vietnam is not interested in arming for war but wants to “be more credible from a negotiating position.”

Former U.S. State Department official Steve Ganyard, now a partner at the consulting firm Avascent, said there is “great anticipation for the prime minister’s visit and hopes of signing a variety of agreements, defense included.”

The U.S. and Vietnam signed a “Comprehensive Partnership” in 2013, which covered trade, development and maritime security, but did not outline specific actions. Vietnam has applauded the Trump administration’s strong language against “China’s military fortress” in the South China Sea. However, this rhetoric has quickly faded since the administration has appealed to Beijing to pressure North Korea to curb its nuclear and conventional weapons programs.

U.S. defense firms realize that Vietnam is still an emerging economy that can’t yet afford “gold-plated” weapons, Mr. Ganyard said. But he expects Vietnam to step up its military modernization as the economy improves. “Its capabilities for high-tech innovation are unmatched by any other ASEAN country. And they are more than willing to develop what they can’t buy.”

Carl Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy said it is an “open secret that Vietnam is in the market for coastal radar and maritime patrol aircraft such as the P-3 Orion. It is a buyer’s market as the U.S., Japan, Australia and other countries acquire the P-8 Poseidon and retire the Orion. Japan could be a supplier.”

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