The holding of the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi will highlight the extent to which progress is being made on continued engagement between Washington and Pyongyang. That will dominate much of the attention. But much like the Singapore Summit held last year, the meeting will also spotlight aspects of a Southeast Asian state’s foreign relations more generally, including, in this case, Vietnam’s involvement in summit diplomacy and regional issues as well as its relationships with the United States and the two Koreas.
As I have noted before in these pages, the episodic focus on one aspect of Vietnam’s foreign policy – be it its ties with the United States or its approach to the South China Sea issue – can often distort the sense of Hanoi’s wider foreign policy and its regional role. In recent years, Vietnam’s foreign policy approach has encompassed various aspects, broadly speaking, including a continued focus on strengthening ties with neighboring states in the Mekong subregion, where it exercises significant influence; playing a more active role in the wider Southeast Asian region, which is an economic and strategic center in the wider Indo-Pacific; and cultivating links with a range of major powers – be it newer relationships such as with the United States in the post-Vietnam War context or older ties with China and Russia, which remain important despite lingering challenges.
The summit will spotlight various aspects of Vietnam’s foreign policy. The first and most obvious one is Vietnam’s continuing role in summit diplomacy. While the timing of these events is to an extent coincidental and one ought not to extrapolate too much from this, we have nonetheless now seen Hanoi’s role in regional summitry at play in multiple instances over the past few years, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2017, where Trump first unveiled his Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy; the World Economic Forum on ASEAN in 2018, which saw Hanoi also build out ties even further with neighboring states; and the Trump-Kim summit in 2019, which has now placed Hanoi at the center of the North Korea issue and U.S. foreign policy under the Trump administration more generally.
Each of these events has seen a focus on not just the meetings themselves but also Vietnam as a country in terms of its domestic and foreign policy. The Trump-Kim summit is no exception, with attention to everything from Hanoi’s motives for hosting the meeting to what it might be perceived to gain from it. This will continue in 2020 as well with Vietnam’s ASEAN chairmanship, which will occur with reverberations from Vietnam’s 2010 chairmanship. That coincided with then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s oft-cited articulation at an ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) of what was read as a tougher U.S. stance on the South China Sea issue, which unsurprisingly elicited Chinese protest even in the face of Beijing’s increased assertiveness.
A second aspect is the trajectory of the U.S.-Vietnam ties. As I have observed on multiple instances, under the Trump administration, we have seen some continued advancements in U.S.-Vietnam relations especially in the defense domain but also some challenges in some aspects of economic and people-to-people ties and on strategic issues, including the North Korea question itself as part of Washington’s broader scrutiny on countries with links to Pyongyang.
Hanoi’s hosting of the second Trump-Kim summit is occurring within this wider context. Ahead of the summit, we have already seen Vietnam indicate some developments and deals that would take place with respect to U.S.-Vietnam relations on the sidelines of the summit as the Southeast Asian state looks to manage ties under the Trump administration, including on the economic side. But beyond the summit itself, the key will be how the U.S.-Vietnam relationship evolves as we head closer to campaign mode for the November 2020 presidential elections in the United States, which will reveal whether Trump will secure a second term or U.S. foreign policy is set for another period of a change under a different president. It is also worth noting that Vietnam will be continuing on with a range of other foreign and domestic policy priorities of its own, including preparations for the 13th National Congress in 2021.
That leads to the third aspect at play, which is Vietnam’s relationship with the two Koreas. Though there tends to be an overemphasis on both the historical solidarity between Hanoi and Pyongyang and the future potential of a Vietnam model for North Korea, it is certainly true that the Vietnam-North Korea relationship deserves attention given the links that still exist as well as uncertainties over the future direction of North Korea’s own economic and political development, inter-Korean relations, and Pyongyang’s ties with countries in Asia and the world more generally. Vietnam’s ties with South Korea also warrant attention given Seoul’s increasing attention to the country within President Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy and Hanoi’s receptiveness to this.
The Trump-Kim summit will see elements of this play out, with an emphasis on any engagements Kim has with the hosts, places that he will visit during his trip, and any remarks that touch on the relationship or Pyongyang’s future direction. There will also be no shortage of continued commentary on the applicability or lack thereof of a Vietnam model for North Korea. But the real question will be how Vietnam’s ties with Pyongyang and Seoul will shape up in the post-summit context once the high-profile attention ebbs and Hanoi has more time and space to develop relations within the changing regional context of the North Korea challenge.
To be sure, most of the headlines coming out of the second Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi will understandably be focused around U.S.-North Korea dynamics rather than aspects of Vietnam’s role in the world that are addressed here. But those elements nonetheless bear emphasis as well given Hanoi’s growing involvement as a regional player in its own right, and they will remain significant even after the dust settles from the summit itself.