Hanoi Is Happy Cozying Up to Trump

At the U.S.-North Korea summit, the host may be the biggest winner.

A signboard welcomes the upcoming summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a restaurant in Tu Liem District in Hanoi on Feb. 20. (Linh Pham/Getty Images)
A signboard welcomes the upcoming summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a restaurant in Tu Liem District in Hanoi on Feb. 20. (Linh Pham/Getty Images)

As the world waits to see if U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un make any headway at next week’s summit in Hanoi, the hosts see a diplomatic coup of their own. Vietnam, among the world’s poorest pariah states only three decades ago, is a keen host of this most delicate of bilateral negotiations.

Summits are not cheap, with Singapore estimating that the last one between Trump and Kim cost it around $12 million. They are also inconvenient, as roads close and security protocols interrupt daily life—prompting angry outcries online in Singapore last June. For a poorer country such as Vietnam, meeting the financial and security requirements of the hastily planned summit could prove substantial.

But rumors of Vietnam hosting a summit between Trump and Kim have been circulating in Hanoi since the first meeting was announced in March 2018. While it remains unclear if Vietnam was ever a serious contender for what became the Singapore summit, the potency of the symbolism was obvious—both Vietnam and Korea had been split in half by Cold War politics and fought American wars as a result. Hanoi, today a popular destination for American investment, was once, like Pyongyang, battered by constant U.S. bombings and decades of sanctions. If Vietnam could bury the hatchet with the United States, why not North Korea?

Less visible—but equally important—has been Vietnam’s own willingness to play host. For Vietnam, the summit provides both prestige on the global stage and a chance to make a good impression on a U.S. president whose unpredictability the Vietnamese find worrying.

Vietnam is no stranger to hosting global leaders—Trump himself visited for the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang along with China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and leaders from other countries both big and small. Such conferences, along with high-level Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings, have occurred in Vietnam because intergovernmental organizations tend to assign hosting responsibilities on a rotating basis among members. But today, as Hanoi readies a peace summit between two nuclear-armed enemies, it feels more than ever like a trusted member of the international community.

Sweetening the prestige is the praise showered on Vietnam by the Trump administration in its messaging on North Korea. Vietnam, senior White House officials have said, can serve as a roadmap for North Korea, a fellow single-party state, in its economic development and global integration.

But there are also more pressing issues at hand for Hanoi, which sees the summit on its soil as beneficial to its own security. China, which is today viewed as Vietnam’s primary geopolitical threat, has seen its influence on the South China Sea issue expand in recent years, much to Hanoi’s chagrin. And, coincidentally, the summit’s dates fall exactly 40 years after Vietnam resisted a bloody Chinese invasion in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war. While the government takes a subdued approach to commemoration out of diplomatic considerations, memories of the tens of thousands killed run deep in Vietnam.

Although Vietnam was once diplomatically united with the Philippines against China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea, including in waters that would conventionally be considered Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ under international law, the election of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 saw Manila change its tone. To the anger of his own military, Duterte walked away from a legal victory at The Hague that saw China’s nine-dash line, on which Beijing rests the basis of its maritime claims, declared to be without basis by international arbitrators.

The election of Trump, also in 2016, sent Vietnam’s strategic partnership with the United States into a state of confusion. Ties between Hanoi and Washington had grown increasingly close, with President Barack Obama having lifted the last remaining arms embargoes against Vietnam in 2016, paving the way for U.S.-built high-tech Vietnamese weapons systems to eventually be deployed in the sea. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton would also stay the course, it was presumed, possibly even providing deterrence should China attempt to attack Vietnamese positions on the disputed Spratly Islands.

While pre-inauguration tweets from the president-elect suggested that Trump was interested in countering Chinese expansionism in the sea, his immediate decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership caused grave concern in Hanoi about Trump’s commitment to the region.

While America’s “freedom of navigation” naval patrols, as the United States calls them, near contested Chinese-occupied islands in the sea have actually increased under Trump, the relationship between Trump and Xi has been dominated by trade, with the South China Sea on the back burner. Given the U.S. president’s penchant for tit-for-tat deals, fears linger in Vietnam—as in Taiwan—that their interests may be sacrificed and the South China Sea used as a bargaining chip between Trump and Xi, to Vietnam’s disadvantage. There is certainly little expectation that U.S. military action can be relied upon for help should China ever again attack the Spratlys.

Complicating matters even further is anxiety over Trump’s trade war. While Vietnam has not yet been targeted and may even stand to benefit as some firms relocate their manufacturing south of the Chinese border, its trade surplus with the U.S. stood at $36.6 billion in the first 11 months of 2018, which will likely be highest year yet when the final numbers are tallied. While thus far Trump has only complained incidentally about his country’s trade deficit with Vietnam, leaders in Hanoi are well aware of his ever-swinging moods.

With Hanoi eager to keep pushing the right buttons with Trump, the summit is a chance to make a positive impression. While a formal state banquet for the U.S. president is not currently on the agenda, Vietnam has expressed interest in holding one. Even short talks with Trump in less formal settings may give Vietnamese leaders a chance to briefly grab his ear. It will also give Vietnam’s leaders a chance to reiterate their desire to buy more U.S. arms, a proposition that may give the State Department pause but is music to the ears of the mercantilist Trump.

Neither North Korea nor the United States will come to the summit with an easy path toward securing their respective interests. There is little sign that progress has been made since the last summit toward denuclearization, while the “Vietnam model” being touted to Kim is fraught with risks to his own personal survival. But that matters little to Vietnam, which will keep a distance from the talks themselves. Being a gracious host—and an eager member of the international community—is more important for Hanoi than whatever Trump and Kim dream up.

Bennett Murray is an American journalist based in Hanoi where he serves as bureau chief for the Deutsche Presse-Agentur (German Press Agency

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