For many Southeast Asian states, the Trump White House’s new strategy for the region, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept, is a hard idea to sell — at least right now. The strategy vows to promote a rules-based security and economic order in Asia, while also encouraging closer cooperation among regional U.S. partners. But the concept has been questioned by even close U.S. partners like Singapore, which has not yet expressed clear support for the idea.
Many Southeast Asian states fear looking like they are building a coalition against China. But others simply appear unready to sign up for an idea at a time when the White House has sent multiple worrying signals to Southeast Asia. The White House’s trade strategy, for instance, has at times targeted Southeast Asian states. In democracies like Indonesia and Malaysia, U.S. indifference to human rights alienates some local leaders. Overall, the administration’s erratic approach to policy-making has undermined Southeast Asians’ confidence in the United States’ president. Due to the White House’s nationalist tone and inconsistent approach to Southeast Asia, some Southeast Asian states have begun to accept China’s growing regional power. Still, some Southeast Asian states fear aspects of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), worry about Beijing’s approach to the South China Sea, and resent Chinese influence in their domestic politics. Many Southeast Asian states remain uneasy with the idea of China becoming the region’s preeminent power.
For the Trump administration to restore Southeast Asian states’ trust in the United States as an indispensable external actor, and to convince them to sign onto the Free and Open Indo Pacific idea, it needs to show that tough policies are not just designed to favor the United States but also can benefit Southeast Asia. It can do so in Vietnam. There, Trump’s tough rhetoric on trade and security jibes with sentiment in the country, and he seems to have popular support, although this is always tough to measure in an authoritarian state. Vietnamese leaders are intensely worried about China’s trade practices, and Vietnam is the Southeast Asian state most actively defending its interests in the South China Sea. Leaders in Hanoi recognize that though working with Washington risks provoking Beijing, China is already trying to intimidate Vietnam. And Hanoi is already essentially putting into effect aspects of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, such as bolstering security cooperation with important U.S. partners.
In addition to welcoming investment, Vietnamese leaders also share U.S. concerns about China’s trade practices. Despite some trade tensions with Washington, Vietnamese leaders appear willing to work with the White House on a tough but fair Asia-Pacific trade policy that addresses China’s trade practices, while accepting that China will remain an enormous driver of regional trade. While Hanoi has not abandoned the desire for multilateral trade liberalization, it appears possibly willing to launch bilateral trade negotiations with Washington, after a possible bilateral investment treaty is finished.
Vietnam’s leaders, meanwhile, have continued to tilt toward the United States while also pursuing security relationships with medium-sized Asian powers. Vietnamese leaders understand that they cannot hope to match China’s militarization of the South China Sea, but Hanoi seeks to deter Beijing from thinking of attacking Vietnam, or from totally dominating the South China Sea. Moving closer to the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, among others, helps Vietnam achieve this goal. On security issues, the Trump administration has continued Obama’s approach of building closer ties with Vietnam, while also rhetorically shifting to a more confrontational approach toward China. The fact that the White House has downgraded human rights and democracy as priorities in U.S. foreign policy may alienate democrats in places like Malaysia but probably has made improving U.S.-Vietnam strategic ties easier.
Vietnam meanwhile has faced growing Chinese pressure on many fronts. In the past two years, China has squeezed Vietnam to give up claims on oil and gas in disputed areas of the South China Sea. Vietnam’s oil exports have dropped by around 40 percent since 2015, as Beijing has worked to prevent Hanoi from new exploration in the South China Sea. Vietnamese leaders also have become increasingly alarmed by the placement of missiles on Chinese installations in the South China Sea, and at other Chinese efforts to consolidate gains in disputed waters. The Vietnamese public has pushed Hanoi away from Beijing. The Vietnamese government is authoritarian, but it is not totalitarian, and it has to respond to public sentiment to some extent. On multiple occasions in the past five years, large anti-China protests have broken out in Vietnam, including in June 2018.
Vietnam’s approach to regional security tracks many of the goals of the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific, although Hanoi does not necessarily score highly on the program’s goal of open markets and respect for the rule of law domestically. Indeed, of all the Southeast Asian states (other than city-state Singapore), Vietnam has shown the fewest illusions about the implications of China’s rise, and the greatest willingness to employ tough, sophisticated strategies to prevent Chinese dominance of the South China Sea and the region more generally. Vietnamese leaders are thus the most natural fit in Southeast Asia for working with the Trump administration on both strategic and economic issues. Hanoi is, in its own way, helping build a “networked security architecture” of regional powers that will defend sovereignty, freedom from coercion, and freedom of navigation. Three of the states that Vietnam is courting are also part of an informal regional partnership called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “Quad”: Australia, India, and Japan.
In addition, Vietnamese leaders have recently explicitly echoed concepts of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. In a speech to an Indian think tank in March 2018, senior defense analyst and Asia expert Derek Grossman notes, Vietnam’s then-president, the late Tran Dai Quang, referred to Vietnam’s desire for an “Indo-Asia-Pacific” security concept and “signal[ed] Hanoi’s willingness to accept [the] concept most strongly pushed by the United States that partners must work together across regions to balance and deter Beijing’s activities.”
Vietnam as a Model Case for U.S. Policy
For the White House to show Southeast Asian states that its tough strategic and economic approach is going to benefit not only the United States, it will need to convince Southeast Asian countries of several points. It will need to assure them that the United States has staying power in Asia, and that the Trump administration’s view of the region, set forth in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific idea, values Southeast Asia itself. It further needs to assure Southeast Asian countries that although China’s rise should not and cannot be stopped, the United States can offer viable options for helping Southeast Asian countries push back if China uses economic and strategic coercion. Washington also needs to assure countries that in promoting a rules-based order on security and trade, the Trump administration will apply rules fairly and based on evidence — rather than issuing condemnations of countries based upon spurious charges, like the idea that states running trade surpluses with the United States are somehow taking advantage of Washington.
Vietnam is the ideal place for the Trump administration to model its hard-edged strategy for South and Southeast Asia, and show countries the concept could be in their interests too. For one, Washington and Hanoi can boost bilateral ties to strategic partnership status. As Carlyle Thayer has noted, the current status of a comprehensive partnership is vague and did not come with clear steps the two sides could take to bolster ties. A strategic partnership would be a clearly-defined bilateral relationship in which both sides would treat each other as close partners, almost allies.
The two countries also could increase port calls and other measures to demonstrate that the U.S.-Vietnam security relationship can deter Chinese actions in the South China Sea. This action would involve making the U.S. aircraft carrier port call in Vietnam an annual event, and ensuring that Hanoi participates in each iteration of the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) multinational joint exercises. Washington also should invite Vietnam to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. As Tom Corben of the University of Sydney notes, the four Quad members already have “striven to upgrade bilateral strategic relations with Vietnam through conducting joint military exercises, port visits, extending lines of defense credit, and donating or selling naval assets to improve Hanoi’s maritime security capacity.” Vietnam is already a kind of discreet partner of the Quad, given its close security ties with all Quad members. Formally joining the dialogue would give Vietnam a bigger say in regional security and send a signal that Washington increasingly sees Hanoi as a security partner on the level of other Quad members. It also would show Southeast Asia that the Quad can include Southeast Asian states as equal partners
The two states also should launch talks on a bilateral free trade agreement. Although Vietnam’s leaders were major proponents of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and were disappointed when Washington dropped out of the TPP, Hanoi’s top officials, generally, are realists who seek any options to improve trade ties. The Trump administration should, by the end of the first quarter of 2019, try to conclude a much-delayed bilateral investment treaty with Vietnam, and then possibly begin trade talks with Vietnam, while also launching bilateral trade talks with other Southeast Asian states; exploratory talks already are in the works with the Philippines on a bilateral deal.
Hanoi and Washington also should do no harm to people-to-people contacts, which have been critical to U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement both in the years before renormalization of diplomatic ties in 1995, and the time since. Now, a White House plan to deport thousands of Vietnamese who arrived in the United States before 1995, and were protected under a 2008 U.S.-Vietnam immigration accord, could poison people-to-people relations. The Trump administration should halt plans to deport Vietnamese nationals who came to the United States prior to 1995. It also should stop plans for tightening student visa regulations, including for Vietnamese nationals; educational contacts are critical to U.S.-Vietnam people-to-people ties.
Finally, Vietnam and the United States should make clear that, despite their closer relationship, both countries will cooperate with China when it plays by regional rules and norms. Neither the United States nor Vietnam can prevent China from becoming a more powerful regional and global actor. On some important regional issues, like public health, China often has played a very helpful leadership role, and can do even more in a void of U.S. leadership. While the Trump administration aims to limit Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea and within the domestic affairs of other states in Asia, it should accept that Southeast Asian countries have to work with China on a wide array of issues. On issues where Beijing is becoming a trusted, responsible leader, Washington and Hanoi should accommodate its growing power. Doing so would simply reflect reality — the United States and its partners cannot prevent China from becoming far more influential in Southeast Asia.
Bringing Vietnam into the Free and Open Indo-Pacific
Building a closer U.S.-Vietnam relationship would benefit both Washington and Hanoi and send a signal to other Southeast Asian states that the Trump administration’s regional policies are not zero-sum. Upgraded ties with Vietnam, based on the ideas set forth in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept, would demonstrate that the White House has a clear regional policy that can actually take into account Southeast Asian states’ strategic viewpoints as well.
Using Vietnam as a model for how Trump administration policies can benefit Southeast Asia, the United States could mend its deteriorating links with the Philippines and Thailand, and reinforce ties with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, three countries that are increasingly skeptical of China’s regional strategic aims. The Philippines and Thailand are probably uninterested in any approach that alienates China, but could be open to closer ties with the United States if they saw Vietnam benefit from them. If states see that the White House’s harder approach to Asia could actually be in their interests, they may be convinced to support the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept.
This piece was adapted from a new Council on Foreign Relations Discussion Paper, “Making U.S.-Vietnam Ties a Model for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” released today and available here.
Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is the author, most recently, of A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.