Vietnam's foot in Trump door
The first Asean leader to visit the White House since the election will meet President Donald Trump tonight. While Mr Trump made personal invitations to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, it's not either of them. Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc will get a foot in the door and a leg up on relations with the new US administration.
Vietnam went to a lot of trouble and some expense to be the first Asean country at the new White House door. The Trump-Phuc meeting seems certain to be politically profitable. There are good signs for Hanoi it will also be economically profitable. Vietnamese diplomats have made it clear Mr Phuc will be pushing extra hard on bilateral relations with the Trump administration. Asean will be very much in the background.
First and foremost from a regional view, Mr Phuc is taking the trade issue straight to the top man. Mr Trump, both on the hustings and in power, has expressed concern over US trade imbalances. He singled out 16 countries for special attention.
China has by far the greatest trade surplus with America, at $347 billion per year. Thailand is No.11 on Mr Trump's list of concerns, with a trade surplus of $16 billion for the last full year. But Vietnam already is handing the US an annual trade deficit of $32 billion. Mr Phuc, like Thailand, is properly unapologetic.
Security-wise, the visit is very important. The Vietnamese premier will hope Mr Trump will authorise more sale of advanced military weapons. A year ago, on an official visit, then-president Barack Obama partially lifted the arms embargo. Hanoi purchased six patrol boats, recently delivered. Mr Phuc now is going to ask for Vietnam's right to buy tanks, ships, missiles and more. That would shrink the trade imbalance, and give Mr Trump's programme to boost US jobs another push.
The South China Sea will certainly be another agenda-topping subject. In fact, though, Vietnam in the past year and more has come to depend less on Washington and more on its own. This accelerated in recent weeks, on the sidelines of China's Belt and Road summit in Beijing. President Tran Dai Quang and officials expressed "comradely ties" with China, stressing closer cooperation on the South China Sea.
Asean neighbours, particularly the Foreign Ministry, should take a look at the route Mr Phuc took to the White House door. Diplomats and Vietnam watchers credit a number of factors, which boil down to hard work that enables the two former arch-enemies to improve the ties that had been frozen for over four decades after the end of the Vietnam war.
In particular, Vietnamese Ambassador to Washington Pham Quang Vinh started and strongly followed up contacts with the teams of both US presidential contacts almost a year ago. When Mr Trump won, Mr Vinh and staff doubled the effort to gain access to the new administration. Vietnam hired a lobbying firm for $30,000 a month to provide advice. This was in fact a former tactic of Thailand.
By being "first in the door" Vietnam gets an influential voice on its concerns. Hanoi was one of the strongest advocates of the now-abandoned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Now, it is likely Vietnam and the US will begin work on a bilateral trade pact.
Thailand's ties with Washington are cool because of the Obama administration's policies after the 2014 coup. But the Trump regime brings a new look. For historical reasons, Thailand is a most-favoured nation in much of Washington, an advantage this government should now press, if belatedly.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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