There were lots of smiles as US President Donald Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ended their White House meeting on May 31. An Asia Sentinel source who polled aides to both leaders said "the dynamics were unexpectedly good...There were no thorny issues and Trump made a positive impression on the Vietnamese."
The Oval Office talks were the high-profile part of a tightly packed schedule for Phuc, who arrived in Washinton on May 28 in a Vietnam Airlines jet with an entourage of 120. There has been much talk of deals being cut, big purchases of American goods. At a gala dinner hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce, Phuc said deals would be concluded during his visit for high-tech US goods and services on the order of US$15-17 billion, according to Reuters. At the same event, General Electric CEO Steve Bolze said his company would bag US$6 billion of those orders. A joint statement issued after Trump and Phuc conferred had them welcoming the announcement of "more than US$8 billion" in new commercial deals.
The GE deals, for jet engines and wind turbines, appear to be the same ones heralded after President Obama's meetings in Hanoi a year ago.
US reportage on Phuc's visit has been light and predictably cliché-ridden. As the Oval Office meeting approached, journalists dwelt on assumed trade frictions and speculated that Vietnam would announce a decision to purchase Lockheed P-3 aircraft to better patrol maritime areas it contests with China. Some stories highlighted US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer's comment that the US$32 billion annual trade deficit presented "new challenges" for the US-Vietnam relationship. President Trump, too, during the photo op that precedes private discussion, noted that the US has "a major trade deficit with Vietnam, which will hopefully balance out in a short period of time. We expect to be able to do that."
If American readers take away any message from the scant press coverage of Prime Minister Phuc's visit, it is that Vietnam now has the sixth largest deficit among America's trade partners, "eclipsing gaps with the likes of Italy, South Korea, India, Thailand and France." Did Prime Minister Phuc use his moments of face time with the new US administration's leaders to explain that a very large part of Vietnam's exports to the US and other rich nations are goods that are simply "finished" in Vietnam, the last link in value chains that originate in China or Korea? Writing for the Washington think tank CSIS, and quoting Vietnamese-American economist Vu Quang Viet, Vietnam expert Jonathan London explains: "Vietnam’s true export surplus with the United States is overstated in these figures for the simple but important reason that a large…share of Vietnam’s exports to the US and other markets are in such items as Samsung cell phones and Intel computer chips, to whose final value Vietnam-based processing adds only 5 to 8 percent…Be that as it may, Vietnam’s trade surplus is a bright shiny figure in some quarters of the U.S. administration. "
Trump and Phuc seem not to have talked much about mutual security concerns. Perhaps reflecting confidence that bilateral cooperation's on the right track, their joint statement reiterated that freedom of navigation and overflight is good, North Korea's ballistic missile tests are bad, and that international disputes ought to be settled peacefully. China was nowhere mentioned by name, nor were the P-3s. An Obama era initiative, a large Coast Guard cutter that was delivered to Vietnam last week, was "discussed," said the joint statement, affording Phuc a chance to tell Trump that Vietnam is interested in "acquiring more defense equipment from the US, including additional Coast Guard cutters."
The joint statement records that the two leaders "looked into the possibility of a visit to a Vietnamese port by a United States aircraft carrier," but it doesn't say what they saw.
Human Rights Watch forecast that human rights would get little attention and was proven right; Trump and Phuc merely "welcomed the results of frank and constructive dialogue." According to the New York Times, presidential press secretary Sean Spicer has explained that "in speaking to authoritarian leaders, in general, the president prefers to raise such issues in private." However, Vietnamese – students especially – can count on being issued US visas expeditiously, said the joint statement, and the US can in turn count on Vietnam to take back green-card holders who commit crimes in the US ("Vietnam will work actively with the United States to expeditiously return Vietnamese nationals subject to final orders of removal.")
David Brown is a former US diplomat with wide experience in Southeast Asia. He is a regular Asia Sentinel correspondent