HANOI, Vietnam – From adversary to the maker of Americans’ shoes, clothing and electronics.
Fierce wartime rivals five decades ago, the relationship between the United States and Vietnam has evolved into a cooperative one largely based on mutual economic and security interests, experts say. China’s growing influence in the region is likely to propel the two nations’ hard-earned rapprochement further along a positive trajectory.
President Donald Trump has made a habit of scrapping multilateral accords, aggressively criticizing close allies and openly courting the U.S.’s traditional foes. Immediately after taking office, he pulled Washington out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sprawling trade pact that was poised to be a big benefit to Vietnam.
But analysts say no matter what Trump does to upset his Vietnamese hosts when he’s in Hanoi for a Feb. 27-28 summit – he arrived Tuesday – with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un, it’s unlikely he will disturb an alliance that began normalizing under George H.W. Bush’s administration (1989-93), gained momentum under President Bill Clinton’s (1993-2001) and expanded while President Barack Obama was in office (2009-17).
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“The Vietnamese are used to Trump saying funny things,” said Murray Hiebert, an expert on the nation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“They cheered on Hillary Clinton in the (2016 presidential) election. It was her husband (Bill Clinton) after all that lifted economic sanctions on them. They are free traders and have trouble with some of Trump’s policies. They don’t believe he is totally focused on the region. However, they recognize what they need to do to survive,” he said.
Crucial to that survival while Trump is in the White House is to avoid antagonizing him over trade. Former President Bill Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994, 19 years after then-Communist North Vietnam’s forces captured the city of Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
A year later, in 1995, trade in goods between the two countries, stood at $451 million.
Last year, it amounted to more than $54 billion, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and Vietnam today, at least in the major cities, has been transformed from an almost sleepy backwater to a country with an increasingly international profile.
Starbucks, McDonald’s and other American franchises are present. Young families go to see the latest Avengers superhero movies. There are craft-beer bars, cocktail lounges and local hip-hop acts. One of the most popular restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City is a Chicago-style BBQ place. It was set up by an American, an Australian and a Frenchman. Bookstores are filled with translations of foreign titles, especially self-help or business titles or biographies of figures like Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple.
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Vietnam’s metropolises are full of construction cranes, glitzy malls and new infrastructure projects springing up in every direction. A recent study found that Vietnam has the 7th highest number of Facebook users in the world.
The hammer and sickle of communism can still be seen, but they are far outnumbered by Nike swooshes and the interlocking C’s of the Chanel logo.
Many in Vietnam say they hope the Trump-Kim summit, the two leaders’ second meeting in little more than eight months after a face-to-face in Singapore, will reduce the threat of nuclear war. But they are also looking to show off their country and its changes since the North overran the South – and pushed out the Americans – in 1975.
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“I think (hosting the summit) is good if Vietnam can take the opportunity to boost tourism and the image of a peaceful country,” said Huong Giang Le, a magazine editor in Hanoi, where vendors are selling T-shirts with the likenesses of Trump and Kim and a local barber is offering free haircuts in the distinctive styles of the two leaders.
Pham Hai Minh, who conducts bike tours of Ho Chi Minh City, whose 8.4 million residents enjoy gleaming office towers and a Manhattan-like downtown, said too many people know Vietnam only because of the war. He said the country needs to show another side, and the summit will help. “We are opening the door in Vietnam,” he said.
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Yet while the Trump administration has applauded Vietnam’s “economic miracle,” with its coveted exports from footwear to seafood, the trade gap heavily favors Hanoi.
In fact, while the U.S.’s largest trade deficit is with China ($375 billion), with whom it is locked in negotiations to end a trade war that has seen each country place tariffs on goods traded, the U.S. trade imbalance with Vietnam ($37 billion) is only exceeded by large deficits with Mexico ($71 billion), Japan ($69 billion) and Germany ($64 billion), according to the U.S. Census Bureau data.
“It’s kind of stunning if you think about where Vietnam came from,” said Hiebert. “It also really irritates Trump. He’s fixated on it. He could tweet about it.”
Still, Charles Salmon, a former U.S. Ambassador to neighboring Laos, and now a senior foreign policy fellow at the East-West Center think tank, said that predictions about Trump’s possible problematic behavior aside, he doubted the president would do anything that would put the U.S.’s relationship with Vietnam at risk.
That’s partly because it’s a relationship built on the back of the almost 60,000 U.S. military personnel, 1 million Vietnamese soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese civilians who were killed in the Vietnam War that ended more than 40 years ago. More than 1,600 Americans remain unaccounted for, according to the Defense Department.
The summit site is not far from the infamous Hoa Lo Prison. Once known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” its POW “guests” included future presidential candidate and Trump rival John McCain. While serving in Vietnam, the former Navy flier was forced to ditch his crippled plane in nearby Truc Bach Lake, a popular recreation spot outside Vietnam’s capital.
“I landed in the middle of the lake, in the middle of the city, in the middle of the day,” McCain later wrote, adding: “An escape attempt would have been challenging.”
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But that was then and this is now.
“This administration’s policy toward South East Asia has been characterized by continuity,” said Salmon, the former ambassador to Laos.
“In Vietnam’s case, however, traditionally neuralgic bilateral issues like human rights have had less salience,” he added, a reference to what Vietnam watchers say appears to be a growing crackdown by Vietnamese authorities on bloggers and human rights activists that has coincided with Trump’s presidency.
According to Human Rights Watch, a humanitarian group, Vietnam’s Communist Party maintains a “monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership.”
It also restricts basic rights, including freedom of speech, press and religion. Critics of the government face harassment, physical assault and imprisonment. Police use torture and beatings to extract confessions, according to the New York-based organization.
“They know that with Trump they won’t get dinged for it,” said Hiebert, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington. “It’s not a big deal to him.”
Yet while Vietnam’s big cities are doing well, many rural areas remain poor. Many more people ride scooters in Vietnam than drive cars. Vietnam’s government, described by officials as a “socialist-oriented market economy,” still owns key industries, but allows private businesses, foreign investment and some deregulation.
Security appears to be one area where U.S.-Vietnam cooperation is unequivocal.
Former President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia policy advocated the importance of enhancing the U.S. presence in the region through strategic partnerships to counter China’s growing economic and military might, including its expansion in the South China Sea, where Vietnam has competing territorial claims that have put it at odds with Beijing.
“Vietnam shares a lot of the White House’s concerns about China’s activities in Southeast Asia,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, an expert on South East Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based foreign affairs think tank.
Kurlantzick said companies worried about U.S.-China trade tensions are moving or considering moving operations to Vietnam, especially in electronics manufacturing.
But whereas Obama wanted to avoid direct competition with China, the Trump administration has actively called for it. Vietnam’s defense policy prohibits it from stationing foreign troops on its soil or siding with a foreign power for combat, but in March last year the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, docked at Vietnam’s port city of Danang. It was the first visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier to Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975 and an illustration of how far the two nations had come.
Hjelmgaard reported from London.