FocusOSA #10: Vietnam: Foreign Affairs

In November the world’s attention was focussed on Vietnam due to Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit held in  Đà Nẵng. The APEC week was a crowning achievement of nearly year-long preparations and 240 meetings, attended by about 21 thousand representatives of the APEC states. A week before the summit Vietnam had been hit by Damrey typhoon, which brought about prolonged downpours and floods, killed 70 people and caused USD 1bn worth of damage. A popular resort in central Vietnam hosted 11 thousand delegates, leaders of the greatest Cooperation economies among them, such as Xi Jinping, Donald Trump, Abe Shinzo or Vladimir Putin. In his speech at the APEC Forum President of the USA sent a clear signal to the countries of the region to take care of their own interests in the first place, just as Trump, first and foremost, takes care of his country’s interests. China was harshly criticised by US President, who accused the Middle Kingdom of taking ruthless measures and employing abusive commercial practices.

Apparently, it is Vietnam that may take advantage of tensions between Washington and Beijing, in an attempt to find balance between superpowers. The Summit resulted in two important declarations for the government in Hanoi.  On the one hand, Trump announced that Strategic Partnership would be strengthened by raising the level of economic exchange, increasing US investment in Vietnam and cooperation on defence issues. On the other hand, China reiterated its willingness for intensive cooperation with Vietnam within the framework of The Belt and Road Initiative, which received a positive response from Hanoi. Furthermore, the Vietnamese government expressed criticism about North Korea’s actions although the issue of denuclearisation of the  Peninsula is not a priority in Vietnamese foreign policy. In exchange for these actions and declarations the USA assured Vietnam it would guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Simultaneously, Beijing received favourable signals from Hanoi, including congratulations for Xi Jinping after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and solemn statements about continuing support for One-China Policy.  

For Vietnamese decision-makers with President Quang and Prime Minister Phúc at the forefront, the Forum was a unique opportunity to talk to the leaders of two greatest economic powers of the world, who paid official visits to Hanoi while attending the Cooperation meeting in Vietnam. Donald Trump arrived in the Vietnamese capital just after the official meeting of the APEC leaders. His visit resulted in signing a contract between Vietnam Airlines, Vietjet Air and Pratt & Whitney for construction of airplane engines. What is more, it contributed to signing an agreement between PetroVietnam Gas Joint Stock Corporation, AES Group Ltd. and Alaska Gasline Development Corporation concerning production and transport of   liquefied natural gas, worth USD 12bn. A day later President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, arrived in Hanoi and together with Vietnamese leaders held talks on creating “Two Corridors and One Economic Circle” within the framework of “The Belt and Road Initiative”. This concept is based on the extension of the infrastructural network around passageways, the first of which is China – Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, enabling Vietnam to access the Euro-Asian belt and China a land route to the Malacca Strait. The other one, in turn, would join the Middle Kingdom with Vietnam, Bangladesh, Myanmar and India and offer the first two access to the Indian Ocean.

Taking advantage of American-Chinese rivalry the Vietnamese have less difficulty striking balance between Beijing and Washington, which  results in security guarantees from the USA regarding the conflict in the South China Sea and on the other hand, offers potential for economic development by engaging in  New Silk Road project. What is more, at the APEC Summit two main elements of Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership were agreed. Although the USA finally rejected the project, which can be attributed to Donald Trump’s  administration, the agreement may strengthen economic relations of 11 states of Asia and the Pacific, engaged in the initiative. Without the US participation, but with  increasing involvement of the government in Tokyo. It is worth noting that Vietnam continues to strengthen its commercial relations with Japan in both bilateral and  multilateral cooperation, striving to realise the TPP concept. Hanoi and Tokyo also cooperate  on defence issues, as demonstrated by recent talks between ministers of national defence and the permission to use a Vietnamese port in Cam Ranh, given to Japanese units. In conclusion, the policy of the government in Hanoi, aiming to find a balance between key players of the region, brings about the desired effect. Vietnam  is beginning to tip the balance, skilfully taking advantage of such occasions as the APEC Summit.