U.S. President Donald Trump has met leaders in Asia’s most powerful countries, plus a whole lot more, since starting a marathon trip November 3 to the region of 4.5 billion people. He met Chinese President Xi Jinping and they treated each other like old friends yet with no breakthroughs in sticky matters such as trade practices or Chinese support for Trump’s nemesis, North Korea. Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed trade, though baring more disputes than hope for a near-term deal.
The American leader in office since January has touched bases twice with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, an outspoken critic of the United States, without obvious sharp words. The two are due to meet again this week in Manila.
Impressions matter because Trump still worries Asian leaders compared to predecessor Barack Obama. Obama mastermind the 2011 “pivot” that kicked off programmatic U.S. economic and military support in Asia.
Vietnam gets two yeses
But it was Vietnam that got the clearest start to the two things it really wanted from Trump’s Washington.
More on Forbes: Making Sense Of The South China Sea Dispute
First, it was hoping for reassurance that the United States would keep caring about the South China Sea sovereignty dispute, a lot of analysts believe. Vietnam wants foreign help resisting Chinese expansion in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea prized for fisheries and undersea fuel reserves. Beijing claims about 90% of the sea including tracts that Vietnam calls its own. It builds artificial islands for military use. In 2014 a Chinese oil rig set off deadly anti-China rioting in Vietnam. In June China apparently pressure Vietnam to quit its own oil and gas drilling project.
Vietnam lacks the military or technology to vie head on with China over maritime rights.
Trump had previously let a few U.S. naval vessels pass through the sea to prove the U.S. view that it’s open to navigation freedom despite China’s ideas.
In Hanoi Sunday, just before the Chinese president made his own visit to Vietnam, Trump offered to help mediate or arbitrate the South China Sea dispute.
Beijing as the dominant player would never accept a third country in the dispute, especially its old Cold War foe, Washington. It showed an anti-third party bent last year when describing as a “farce” the world arbitration court’s ruling against a lot of its maritime claims. But the U.S. president’s comment at least acknowledges Vietnam’s concern and certainly doesn’t un-take its side. More to come?
Obama’s “retrenchment policy has worked for some smaller countries in Asia,” said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chih Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities. “That’s the reason the Vietnamese government wants some reassurance from President Trump the U.S. will play a role in maintaining freedom of navigation in South China Sea.”
Tough-trading Trump may OK trade
Second break: Vietnam wanted to know the United States still cares about free trade after leaving the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) just after Trump took office in January. Trade totaled 89% of Vietnam’s $201 billion GDP last year. Export manufacturing of items such as car parts and consumer electronics explain much of its economic growth of around 6% every year since 2012. Vietnam was one of the 12 parties in the original U.S.-supported TPP, and the United States ranks as Southeast Asian country’s No. 1 export market, according to Washington’s calculation.
(Yes, it’s the same Vietnam that fought a war with the United States in the 1970s.)
Trump somehow knew all that was on Vietnam’s mind, perhaps because Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc pressed the case when he visited Washington in May. Trump told Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang Sunday he looked forward to “fair and reciprocal” two-way trade despite a deficit favoring Vietnam, according to the VnExpress.net news website. That’s an obvious problem for Trump’s America-first ideals.
So he asked Vietnam to be more transparent but not in a way that flamed the host or precluded a deal some day. The region as a whole, he said, should “remove unfair trade practices,” per the VnExpress.net report.