In his keynote speech at this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting (APEC), U.S. President Donald Trump sent a clear message to the Asia-Pacific nations, asking them to take care of themselves by putting their countries first, just like he is “always going to put America first.”
At least one other country is already acting on Trump’s message. Vietnam, as the host of this year’s APEC, once again demonstrated its diplomatic skills at balancing between the two superpowers — China and the United States — so as to take care of its own interests.
During the APEC meeting, Vietnam successfully issued two important joint statements — one with the United States, led by the unpredictable Trump, and the other with China, under all-powerful Chinese President Xi Jinping.
According to the joint statement with the United States, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, and Trump reaffirmed to strengthen and expand their countries’ Comprehensive Partnership by promoting bilateral trade and investment and deepening defense and security cooperation.
To check the boxes on Trump’s political agenda, Vietnam announced new bilateral commercial agreements worth $12 billion and discussed importing liquefied natural gas from the United States. Vietnam also expressed “grave concern”over the North Korean crisis, which doesn’t really touch upon Vietnam’s core interests.
In return, Vietnam achieved U.S. reassurance on safeguarding freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea, which was obviously aimed at Beijing — without singling out China by name. Vietnam claims wide areas of the South China Sea, as does China.
The joint statement said:
The two sides reiterated the stance on the South China Sea in the previous United States-Vietnam and United States-ASEAN joint statements… They reaffirmed their shared commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, including full respect for legal and diplomatic processes … They further called for all South China Sea claimants to clarify and comport their maritime claims in accordance with the international law of the sea as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and to implement their international legal obligations in good faith in managing or resolving these disputes.
Meanwhile, Vietnam made a diplomatic breakthrough with China as well by tailoring to Xi’s political agenda.
According to its joint statement with China, Vietnam welcomed and supported Xi’s signature policy, the Belt and Road Initiative. Specifically, both sides agreed to enhance cooperation on economy and trade, industrial capacity, investment, infrastructure, and finance.
To please China, Vietnam didn’t forget to reaffirm its position on the “One China Policy,” emphasizing that Vietnam will “resolutely oppose any form of separatist activities aimed at Taiwan’s independence.”
In terms of the sensitive South China Sea issue, China and Vietnam reached a consensus that both sides will “appropriately manage maritime issues, steadily advance all forms of maritime cooperation including joint development, and jointly strive to uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
It’s worth noting that Vietnam, as another socialist state which shares a complicated history with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), has a good knowledge of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political system. Thus, Hanoi is particularly good at employing special socialist wording to highlight its close ties with the CCP.
As just the latest example, the joint statement said:
Both sides believe that the friendship between China and Vietnam created and carefully nurtured by the leaders of the older generation such as Chairman Mao Zedong and Chairman Ho Chi Minh is the common precious treasure of the two peoples. Both parties should jointly inherit, safeguard, and treat [the treasure] well.
Vietnam also highly complimented the CCP’s great success at its recently closed 19th National Congress.
By signing joint statements separately and balancing between China and the United States, Vietnam seems to have found a more comfortable position in the region through the APEC meeting.