Vietnam’s Premier Phuc Enters the US Cobra Den

For Vietnam, Donald Trump's election as US President ushered in nervous times. Though the Hanoi regime still insists that Vietnam aims to be friends with all and to forge alliances with none, in fact it has come to regard the United States as its best bet against an expansionist China.

During the Obama years, Washington and Hanoi forged a strategic entente – unofficial, of course, but increasingly real. Washington has worried that Beijing aims to assert control over the East Asian sea lanes as soon as it acquires local air and naval superiority. Hanoi knows that it is high on China's list of uppity neighbors that need to be taught respect.

Barack Obama's visit to Vietnam last May was therefore a triumph. Huge crowds turned out in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, and in Hanoi just to catch a glimpse of Obama as his motorcade swept past. His dialogues with young leaders and entrepreneurs riveted public attention. His interlocutors in Vietnam's nominally Communist one-party regime shrugged off the American president's homilies about civil rights and waxed enthusiastic about common interests – particularly the recently concluded Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TPP) and America's easing of bilateral restrictions on weapons sales.

Obama's successor had mentioned Vietnam often during his successful campaign for the presidency, each time as one of a handful of nations that were putting Americans out of work by producing inexpensive consumer goods. Indeed, if President Trump was dead set on rewriting the rules of US-China trade, it seemed a good bet that he also had Vietnam's booming economy in his sights as well.

Of the 11 countries that negotiated the TPP, Vietnam was the least advanced. It had made audacious promises to bring its economy up to high Western standards. Remarkably, Hanoi had used the TPP as a tool to undo ideological gridlock and set an otherwise impossible reform agenda. Inside the ruling party, and outside it among citizens who simply want to live better, the TPP was universally regarded as a good thing. It was, moreover, the economic glue that would bind a durable strategic relationship.

President Trump ripped up the TPP during his first week in office. Though the new US president has undone or rethought quite a few campaign positions in the four months since then, the once-touted "21st century trade pact" still seems quite dead.

And yet, there have been recurrent rumors that the United States and Vietnam might agree to explore a bilateral trade pact that would entail many TPP-like trade reforms. To the extent that's true (official confirmation is lacking on both sides), jump-starting bilateral trade talks will be at the top of Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc's agenda when he visits Washington this week.

Prime Minister Phuc will meet President Trump at the White House on May 31. In the US, outside the State Department's East Asia Bureau, Phuc is fairly indistinguishable from the other 17 members of Vietnam's Communist Party politburo. The State Department brief that is served up to Trump will likely recall that Phuc has earned a reputation as a fairly good executive but, unlike his comparatively flamboyant predecessor, Nguyen Tan Dung, he hasn’t much challenged the party's command of policy.

That Phuc is going to have 30 minutes or so of Oval Office face time with the US President is itself a significant event. It suggests three things. First, that Vietnam's top diplomats – Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi, and Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh in Washington – have engineered an important moment: Donald J. Trump's first White House meeting with a Southeast Asian visitor. (Japan's Abe was the first Asian visitor, slipping into the White House before going on to meet Trump at Mar-A-Lago.) Second, that the Vietnamese have been given reason to hope that TPP-quality bilateral trade talks can result. Third, that Phuc is bringing a gift of sorts: an expression of Hanoi's desire to purchase certain sophisticated defense items from the United States. The last will be Trump's takeaway from the meeting.

On the tangled politics of the South China Sea, the American president has likely been advised to maintain strategic ambiguity. Washington is preoccupied right now with North Korea's provocations, a macro-matter on which it urgently needs China's cooperation.

However, diplomatic ambiguity is not the US chief executive’s style. While Phuc attempts to stick to his script, Trump will dominate the meeting, talking a lot. Trump's remarks in public and reportedly also in private tend to be both hyperbolic and imprecise. By present form, a surprise or two is highly possible. Diplomats hate surprises but in the time of Trump, even in a brief meeting, free-lancing may wrench Vietnamese-American relations onto a new trajectory.

David Brown is a former US diplomat with extensive experience in Vietnam and a regular Asia Sentinel contributor