Playing host to President Trump and Xi Jinping at the same time – both attending the APEC summit in Danang and then travelling to Hanoi – presents a delicate challenge for Vietnam whose future depends on treading a wary path between the two superpowers.
President Xi, after allowing China to bare its teeth in the summer, is now turning on the charm towards his Communist comrades in Hanoi.
In an article for Vietnamese state media, he said that Ho Chi Minh had been “like a brother” to China’s past leaders and the two had “fought shoulder to shoulder” in the struggle for independence.
While China’s goal is clear enough – to cajole, discourage and threaten Vietnam from asserting its claims in the South China Sea – President Trump’s intentions remain much harder to fathom.
He lashed out at unfair trade practices in his address at APEC, an uncomfortable area for Vietnam which is already being investigated by the US over its $32 billion trade surplus.
Arrests and intimidation
President Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from the TPP this year derailed Vietnam’s plans for a further export boost and its hope to cement the US in the region as a bulwark against Chinese aggression.
On the other hand, President Trump’s lack of interest in promoting a pro-democracy and human rights agenda, has sent a green light to a Communist party intent on stifling internal dissent.
It has taken full advantage, stepping up arrests, intimidation and lengthy prison terms for bloggers and other activists.
President Trump has also shown some commitment to resisting China’s advances in the South China Sea, continuing his predecessor’s policy of sending warships on “freedom of navigation” missions near Chinese outposts.
Vietnam, however, can only be wary of the personal love-in between President Xi and Trump, on full display during President Trump’s visit to China this week.
The concern is that the two leaders will eventually cut a deal on trade or North Korea, or both, that will leave the Chinese free to pursue their ambitions in the South China Sea.
Most observers are sceptical, but President Trump continues to show himself to be unpredictable and motivated largely by narrow US commercial interests.
President Trump’s decision to visit Vietnam will have come as a relief to the leadership, given concern at one point that he could cut it out of his Asian tour.
They will try to impress on him Vietnam’s importance as a strategic and economic partner and as the key to any hopes of containing China’s ambitions in one of the world’s most strategically important waterways.