Trump Is Causing Conflict by Playing Peacemaker

The United States is creating problems in Asia by offering to mediate Vietnam’s tensions with China.

Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang and U.S. President Donald Trump during a bilateral meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Nov. 12. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang and U.S. President Donald Trump during a bilateral meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Nov. 12. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Just what did Donald Trump mean when he offered to “mediate” in the dispute between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea? On Sunday, during his official visit to Hanoi, U.S. President Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart, “If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know … I’m a very good mediator and arbitrator.”

The comment set alarm bells ringing in Vietnam, where fears about becoming the spurned partner in a G-2 relationship between the United States and China come second only to concerns about the United States supposedly plotting to overthrow Communist Party rule in Hanoi.

“Vietnam,” said Nguyen Thanh Trung, dean of the Faculty of International Relations at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Ho Chi Minh City, “would welcome [Trump’s] suggestion, but China prefers bilateral mechanisms over the South China Sea issues.” Beijing has never welcomed outside intervention in the disputes before, and Trung probably was speaking for Vietnamese policymakers when he said that, “I assume China will not endorse his initiative unless Trump’s offer favors China’s claims in the South China Sea.”

On the face of it, the offer to “mediate” in the South China Sea dispute is very strange. China does not regard the United States as a neutral party amid the rival territorial claims. As Wu Shicun, president of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies told a conference in Haikou, China, on Nov. 9, “Substantive issues such as disputes over territory and jurisdiction over the sea have not been solved yet and are still facing the intervention by major outside powers such as the United States and Japan.” This is not the first time a senior American government official has offered to mediate in the South China Sea dispute. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested the notion back in 2010. It came to nothing.

But what may cause a few sleepless nights is whether Trump and China have made their own deal. Everyone is well aware that Trump’s current priority in Asia is the denuclearization of North Korea. They wonder what price Beijing may have extracted from Washington in order to increase the pressure on Pyongyang. Would a little arm-twisting in Hanoi be the quid pro quo for a little sanctions-tightening on the Yalu River?

The relatively low priority given to the South China Sea issue in the two governments’ joint statement — it was point 13 of 14, below the relocation of the American embassy in Hanoi — might suggest a dialing down of its importance to the United States.

There’s no evidence that a grand deal is the plan, and there would be plenty of Trump supporters in Washington fervently arguing against tolerating any Chinese advances in the South China Sea. Nonetheless, lurking in the minds of Southeast Asian governments is the suspicion that U.S. strategy in the newly named “Indo-Pacific” region could become a demonstration of the “Art of the Deal” at their expense.

What would China want from such an arrangement? Ultimately, it seeks international recognition of its claims to every scrap of land within its unilateral U-shaped line claim, along with its “historic rights” to all the natural resources enclosed by the line. In the meantime, until it gets everything, Beijing might be prepared to generously accept some halfway measures — such as acquiescence to its demands for “joint development.” This is the formulation China uses to press the Southeast Asian claimants to share the fish, oil, and natural gas that lie in what are legally their own exclusive economic zones.

But other parts of Trump’s messaging were better news for the Vietnamese. In his speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on Nov. 10, he offered this: “In America, like every nation that has won and defended its sovereignty, we understand that we have nothing so precious as our birthright, our treasured independence, and our freedom.” Trump may not have realized it, but his speechwriter was clearly echoing the words of another president, Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, on July 17, 1966: “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom”.

Trump then went on to link that sentiment to the story of the two Trung sisters who, in the modern Vietnamese nationalist narrative, fought against China 2,000 years ago. This, combined with a reference to countries being “satellites to none,” sounded like American support for Hanoi’s continued defiance of Beijing.

Just as important for Hanoi were the things that Trump did not say. Apart from one brief mention of “individual rights” (strangely coupled with “freedom of navigation and overflight”), there was no mention of political or social reform. The official joint statement gave only a single sentence nod towards “protecting and promoting human rights”.

On his only trip to Vietnam as president in May 2016, former President Barack Obama hosted a dinner for reformers and dissidents such as the protest singer Do Nguyen Mai Khoi. This time around there was no such hospitality. Instead, Mai Khoi and several other dissidents were barricaded into their houses by plainclothes police and were later evicted from Hanoi.

This indifference to questions of rights and governance is likely to be the hallmark of Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy. It will make diplomatic relations with authoritarian governments much easier, even if it disappoints a generation of younger citizens who, during the Obama years, looked to the United States for support in their desire to expand social and political freedoms.

The other major break with the previous administration will be over trade. Trump made this crystal-clear in both Danang and Hanoi, where his speeches called for “fair and reciprocal trade” and denounced the United States’ chronic trade deficits with most Asian countries.

For the government in Hanoi, Vietnam’s $32 billion trade surplus with the United States is critical for balancing its $34 billion trade deficit with China. It has no incentive to give Trump what he really wants — but it will offer a few sops. Hence the announcement of nonbinding memoranda of understanding for several large deals with American businesses and the re-announcement of a large aircraft engine deal for Pratt & Whitney.

There is an overlap here between the issues of rights and trade. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) pushed by the Obama administration would have made it easier for small and medium-sized businesses to export and expand. The bilateral approach preferred by Trump will give advantages to large corporations and state-owned enterprises. American participation in TPP would have encouraged democratization in a way that state-to-state bilateralism will not. Vietnam is one of the 11 countries pushing ahead with TPP, but without U.S. participation some of the liberalizing measures, such as allowing independent trade unions, will be dropped.

The one clear area of continuity with the Obama administration is the military. Talk of “pivot” and “rebalance” are long gone, but the aspiration to deploy more forces into the seas of East and Southeast Asia continues. In their joint statement, Trump and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang looked forward to the first visit of a U.S. aircraft carrier to Vietnam sometime in 2018. Vietnam will continue to welcome American warships so long as Washington has the budget to build and deploy them.

That will be quietly welcomed by most Southeast Asian governments, exactly because it checks China. In conference after conference, Chinese officials dismiss out-of-hand the idea that Southeast Asian states might actually desire a robust presence from the United States to balance China’s increasingly aggressive moves in the South China Sea. They insist that if the United States withdrew, everything would be calm in the region. Countries like Vietnam understand very well what that “calm” would entail and are doing their best to make sure they do not end up as “satellites” of anyone.

What this episode seems to demonstrate above all is the difficulty of making foreign policy by the seat of one’s pants. Such off-the-cuff comments have the capacity to upset and alarm rather than reassure. American diplomats will probably have to spend some time rolling back Trump’s comments, just as they did when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told his Senate confirmation hearing that the United States would deny China access to the seven artificial island bases it has built in the South China Sea. There are signs that the new administration is developing a coherent policy towards the Indo-Pacific, but it’s not quite there yet.

Bill Hayton is an associate fellow at Chatham House.

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