President Trump has welcomed the signing of new multi-billion dollar business deals with Vietnam following a meeting in the White House with the visiting Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
The meeting was something of a diplomatic coup for Vietnam, which has pushed tenaciously for top level contact with the Trump administration.
However, disquiet about the US trade deficit with Hanoi and political repression in Vietnam continue to cloud the relationship.
“They just made a very large order in the United States – and we appreciate that – for many billions of dollars, which means jobs for the United States and great, great equipment for Vietnam,” said President Trump after a 15 minute encounter with Mr Phuc in the White House.
The US Commerce Department announced deals worth $8 billion dollars, including the purchase of power generation equipment and aircraft engines, that could sustain some 23,000 American jobs.
The deals are seen as an olive branch by Vietnam, which is anxious to appease President Trump following his earlier condemnations of Vietnam’s large trade surplus.
Unhappy about trade deficit
Vietnam wants to show its value to the new administration as an economic and strategic partner.
Hanoi has also been concerned that President Trump’s enthusiastic courting of the Chinese leader Xi Jinping could leave Vietnam out in the cold.
Mr Phuc urged Washington and Beijing to “act with full transparency and in a responsible manner” so as not to have a negative impact on the rest of the region.
The US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, earlier made clear that the administration was still unhappy with America’s $23 billion trade deficit with Vietnam and wanted to hear concrete plans from Hanoi on how to reduce it.
President Trump has singled out countries running large trade surpluses with the US, including Vietnam, and warned that they could face retaliation.
Mr Phuc proposed a bilateral trade deal with Washington following President Trump’s scrapping of the TPP regional trade deal in January.
Vietnam lobbied hard for Mr Phuc to be the first ASEAN leader to meet the president.
The encounter sends a signal that the US still takes Vietnam seriously as a strategic partner in the region.
As expected, President Trump appears not to have stressed the importance of improvements in human rights.
Others in Washington, however, are determined to put pressure on the communist leadership to ease political repression.
“President Trump constitutionally leads on foreign policy, but Congress as always advises and consents, and can throw up roadblocks to closer U.S.-Vietnam ties if members don’t like what they see,” wrote John Sifton of Human Rights Watch in the Huffington Post.
Congressmen in a recent hearing in Washington expressed concern at Vietnam’s continued crackdown on independent bloggers, environmental activists and other government critics.