Trump, Clinton and the Future of US-Vietnam Relations

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Trump, Clinton and the Future of US-Vietnam Relations

Bilateral relations have come a long way. How might they fare under the next U.S. president?

Trump, Clinton and the Future of US-Vietnam Relations
Credit: U.S. Department of State

Following U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Vietnam and in light of the ongoing presidential race in the United States, it is appropriate to consider the future of United States-Vietnam relations. Specifically, after Election Day, November 8, 2016, there will be a new U.S. president-elect.

Given the traditional U.S. two-party system, the new president will most likely be either Donald Trump, who recently secured the Republican nomination, or Hillary Clinton, who is the likely Democratic nominee. [It is important to note that Hillary Clinton’s challenger, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, was still contesting at the time of writing, although Clinton had achieved the delegate numbers necessary to claim the nomination. For the purposes of these comments, I will assume that Hillary Clinton is the nominee for the Democratic Party.]

Evaluating how the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship may change under a President Hillary Clinton or a President Donald Trump is critically important not only to stakeholders in Hanoi and Washington, but also to the greater international community, particularly given Vietnam’s prominent role in issues of global concern such as maritime and territorial disputes in the East Sea (South China Sea). 

Building a Comprehensive Partnership 

Before speculating on the future, we should acknowledge how far the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship has come since the United States severed relations after Vietnam’s reunification in 1975. The relationship has followed a three-phase progression towards a comprehensive partnership.

During the first phase, the United States and Vietnam sought to ease tensions and build trust. Steps taken by Hanoi in the 1980s – adoption of market-oriented economic reforms (doi moi or “renovation”), cooperation on “legacy” issues like POW-MIA affairs, and withdrawal from Cambodia – created space for improved relations with Washington. The 1990s witnessed the fruit of this labor. President Bill Clinton ended the U.S. trade embargo in 1994, restored diplomatic relations in 1995, appointed the first U.S. Ambassador since the end of the war in 1997, and signed the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement (BTA) in 2000.

In the second phase, coinciding with the administration of President George W. Bush, the countries constructed the foundations of their partnership. With the implementation of the BTA in 2001, the United States conditionally normalized trade relations (NTR). Vietnam began experiencing phenomenal economic growth based, in part, on increased exports to the United States and U.S. foreign investment. Since 2000, Vietnam’s real GDP growth has averaged more than 6 percent per year, second only to China. During this period America also became Vietnam’s largest export market. In 2007, following further liberalization of its economy, Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) as a full member and received permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status with the United States.

Military and security ties also strengthened. For example, in 2005, the United States provided new training opportunities for Vietnamese military officers and, in 2007, the Bush Administration relaxed U.S. International Traffic Arms Regulations (ITAR) to permit the export of certain non-lethal defense items. Washington and Hanoi also began holding annual summits that addressed political and economic reforms, as well as strategic security issues affecting both countries. Notably, the U.S.-Vietnamese strategic dialogue grew as China took an increasingly aggressive posture in the region.

The third phase began with the election of President Barack Obama and the development of a fuller and deeper partnership. After engaging in two long wars in the Middle East, Obama pledged to turn America’s attention towards the future challenges and opportunities of the Asia-Pacific region. The Obama Administration specifically identified Vietnam as one of the partners to be developed under the president’s “rebalancing” strategy.

Consistent with this approach, the United States has promoted Vietnam’s role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a landmark regional trade agreement involving 12 Asia-Pacific countries. If fully ratified and implemented, the TPP would cover approximately 40 percent of the world’s GDP. Vietnam stands to gain increased access to the U.S. market and foreign direct investment. In turn, Vietnam is the fifth-largest U.S. trading partner among the TPP parties and serves as a significant destination for U.S. exports and capital. The Obama Administration has also used the TPP as means for persuading Vietnam to take additional reforms such as stronger protections for labor, intellectual property, and human rights. More broadly, the United States views the TPP as a platform for extending its influence in the region and encouraging greater regional integration. China is unmistakably absent from the TPP.

In addition, Vietnam figures prominently in the U.S. strategic posture in the region. In the face of escalating tactics by China in the South China Sea, from maritime harassment to militarization of reclaimed land, the United States has raised its diplomatic and military profile in the region. The Obama Administration has sought to institutionalize the debate at regional forums, such as ASEAN and the East Asia Summit, and promote the use of peaceful dispute settlement mechanisms like the arbitration process. During his recent remarks in Hanoi, Obama warned against any attempt by larger powers to “bully” smaller ones. To back up these words, Washington has increased the visibility and pace of U.S. naval freedom of navigation (FON) operations and committed to strengthening the maritime capacity of partners such as Vietnam. Obama’s lifting of the U.S. arms embargo against Vietnam may be viewed in this security context.

In sum, Obama’s visit to Vietnam represents the culmination of a three-stage process whereby the United States and Vietnam have built a comprehensive partnership. His visit also represented a potential turning point, acknowledged by the president’s observation that he was the first U.S. president to visit who “came of age” in the postwar period. The optimistic prospect of the future – not the weight of the past – should guide the bilateral relationship. The immediate future will see the election of a new U.S. president. And the 2016 presidential race provides a study in contrasts that has significant implications for the U.S.-Vietnamese partnership and beyond.

President Hillary Clinton: Continuity and Increased Engagement

If Hillary Clinton is elected president, she will most likely continue President Obama’s approach to Vietnam and may even increase Washington’s engagement with Hanoi. Hillary Clinton not only served as Obama’s Secretary of State, but she also is fully ensconced in the traditions and conventions of U.S. foreign policy. In this regard, she would represent the most well-traveled and experienced president in modern United States history, particularly in relation to Vietnam. For example, as First Lady, she accompanied President Bill Clinton during his historic trip to Vietnam in 2000, the first presidential visit since President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1969.

In relation to economic issues, Hillary Clinton in all likelihood will seek to expand U.S. trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region. As U.S. Secretary of State she provided numerous indications of support for the TPP. For instance, in 2012, while in Singapore, she gave a speech on the “promise of economic statecraft” wherein she highlighted the potential for the TPP to lower barriers, raise standards, and drive long-term growth across the region. After formal conclusion of the TTP in February, Hillary Clinton signaled her opposition to the details of the agreement, so there could be a reversal in U.S. policy. However, this gesture may simply be a tactical maneuver in light of a current political atmosphere in the United States that is hostile to free trade.

During her tenure with the Obama Administration, Hillary Clinton was known to be among the more “hawkish” cabinet members. For example, she advocated for the Libyan intervention and greater U.S. engagement in Syria, such as the implementation of a NATO-enforced “no-fly zone.” Indeed, she may be more forceful than Obama has been in asserting U.S. policy in the Asia-Pacific. During her campaign, Hillary Clinton has promised to hold China “accountable” for its aggressive actions in the region and to reassert America’s role as a Pacific power. On June 2, 2016, during an address on national security issues, she stressed the important role of America’s network of allies in the Asia-Pacific. She has also strongly condemned Donald Trump for his comments regarding NATO and U.S. allies in Asia (as further addressed below).

Hillary Clinton is well-aware of the dynamics of the South China Sea dispute. In July 2010, at the annual ASEAN Regional Forum gathering of foreign ministers in Hanoi, then-Secretary of State Clinton announced that the freedom of the seas is a U.S. “national interest” and that the United States opposes the use or threat of force by any claimant in the South China Sea. In a rebuke to China’s nine-dash claim to the entirety of the sea, she argued that “legitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features.” Under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) artificial islands or structures do not generate any territorial sea or maritime zones.

Given her history and campaign positions, we can reasonably expect a President Hillary Clinton to continue the expansion of trade relations with Vietnam, promote institutionalization of the South China Sea dispute in multilateral bodies like ASEAN, strengthen the maritime and military capacity of key partners such as Vietnam, challenge China to comply with recognized rules of maritime conduct, and forcefully maintain the freedoms of navigation and overflight.

President Donald Trump: Recalibration and Uncertainty

If Donald Trump were to be elected president, we can expect the unexpected. He is an unconventional candidate for the U.S. presidency. This is his first campaign for public office; prior to announcing his bid, his public persona largely stemmed from his extensive real estate holdings, reality television appearances, and the tabloid press. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Donald Trump has ran a campaign that has challenged common assumptions underlying U.S. presidential campaigns, both in terms of protocol and policy proposals. In short, Donald Trump is running as an “outsider” seeking to disrupt the U.S. political process.

In his major foreign policy speech, Donald Trump announced an overriding theme – America first – that appears standard (all states assert their self-interest), but the details of his platform sharply diverge from the customary principles of U.S. foreign policy. For instance, in an effort to combat illegal immigration and related crime, he has promised to “build a wall” between the United States and its third largest trading partner, Mexico. In order to toughen the war against terrorism, Donald Trump has floated the idea of torturing terrorist suspects and targeting their families. In response to the terrorist attacks in California in December 2015, he proposed a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

With regard to Vietnam and the greater Asia-Pacific, there are at least four areas where a Donald Trump presidency would result in a recalibration of U.S. foreign policy and, thus, create uncertainty.

First, on the issue of trade, Donald Trump has spoken against free trade agreements. He has vehemently opposed the TPP – describing it as “a horrible deal” primarily benefiting China as opposed to America (even though China is not party to the TPP). Donald Trump is also suspicious of the WTO and has criticized China’s membership in the organization. In order to support U.S. firms and workers against “unfair” competition, he has pledged to take a series of retaliatory measures against China for currency manipulation, subsidies for state-owned enterprises, and theft of intellectual property. The same type of reasoning could be extended to other Asian countries with whom the United States has a trade deficit, such as Vietnam.

Second, Donald Trump has criticized the role of the U.S. world-wide system of alliances, from NATO to the Pacific. He believes that the alliances are imbalanced and that U.S. allies should carry more of the burden or even be abandoned if too costly for the United States. For instance, Donald Trump has proposed that allies currently protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, such as Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea, seek their own nuclear weapons.

Third, Donald Trump has vowed to not intervene in conflicts that do not directly threaten the security the United States. He has severely criticized U.S. interventions in Iraq and Libya as being misguided and ancillary to U.S. interests. Donald Trump has not issued a clear position on the South China Sea, but given that the United States is not a direct claimant, his default position may be disengagement: let countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines defend their interests alone.

Fourth and more broadly, Donald Trump has looked skeptically on the United States’ role as guarantor of the liberal international order. Since World War II, the United States has been the purveyor of global public goods, such as developing international institutions, maintaining the freedom of the seas, promoting democratic values, and serving as an off-shore balancer to international conflicts. It is unclear and perhaps doubtful under his policy of “America first” whether Donald Trump would continue this legacy. This factor alone creates great uncertainty for the future of international affairs.

Whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, on November 8, 2016, America will choose a new president and this choice will have consequences for Vietnam and the Asia-Pacific region.

Roncevert Ganan Almond is a partner at The Wicks Group, based in Washington, D.C. He has counseled government authorities in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America on issues of international law. He served as an aide to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, but is not currently affiliated with any campaign. The views expressed here are strictly his own. 

This article was first published in Infonet.vn. It is reprinted here with kind permission.