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International relations

US and Vietnam look to improve ties, with China in sight

Hanoi summit is meant as a signal of U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia

The U.S. and Vietnam look to improve ties.   © Reuters

HANOI -- U.S. President Donald Trump is set to hold summit talks with Vietnamese leaders Wednesday, a move that analysts say underscores a key initiative of his administration -- countering China's growing influence in the region.

The meetings, with Communist Party General Secretary and President Nguyen Phu Trong and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, will be followed by more regional diplomacy. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is accompanying Trump on his trip, is expected to visit the Philippines after Hanoi, while National Security Adviser John Bolton is reportedly visiting Australia.

The renewed burst of regional diplomacy "is significant for the U.S. because of the ever-expanding Chinese influence in the region," says Hoo Chiew Ping, senior lecturer at the National University of Malaysia. "Pompeo's visit to the Philippines can be seen as a bid to win back a former ally as the Philippines under [President Rodrigo] Duterte is getting too close to China for the U.S.' comfort."

The flurry of diplomatic activity on security issues comes as Trump tries to dispel the image that he is, unlike his predecessor Barack Obama, disengaged from the region, as seen in his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement in 2017.

The U.S. finds a like-minded partner in Vietnam, which has fought many wars with China and is wary of Chinese dominance in the region. Despite their communist roots, Vietnam is being embroiled in a bitter territorial dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the South China Sea.

Trump is visiting Vietnam for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Wednesday and Thursday on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program.

"The biggest challenge, going forward, to the United States is not North Korea, but rivalry and competition with China in the technological and economic fields," said Stephen Nagy, senior associate professor at the International Christian University and visiting fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs. "The Trump administration is trying to signal to the region that the region is important" to the U.S.

Trump's visit to Vietnam is his second in less than two years and follows last year's spate of visits, including two by then Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and one by Pompeo.

In March last year, U.S. aircraft carrier Carl Vinson made a historic port visit in Vietnam, marking the first time that a U.S. warship of this size visited the country since the end of Vietnam War. Symbolically, the ship dropped anchor off the coast of the port city of Danang, where U.S. combat troops first landed in the country during the Vietnam War.

The U.S. is expected to again send one of its aircraft carrier groups to the region in the coming months to demonstrate its commitment to the region.

No official summit agenda has been released, but Trump is expected to praise Vietnam for the important role it is playing in the region, including helping bring Pyongyang out of diplomatic isolation.

Vietnam's contribution stands in contrast to Beijing's reluctance to apply pressure on Pyongyang. Beijing doesn't want to see military tensions build up in the Korean Peninsula, but neither does it wish to see the emergence of a pro-U.S. or more neutral Pyongyang on the peninsula.

The summit comes at a symbolic time for Vietnam, which is marking the 40th anniversary of the Sino-Vietnam border war. Vietnam is looking to leverage its position as the host of the Trump-Kim summit to secure U.S. support for the ongoing territorial dispute with China.

Vietnam fought many wars with China in its history and "feels more threatened by China than it does by the U.S.," said Euan Graham, executive director of La Trobe Asia, a regional research and engagement arm of La Trobe University in Australia. "So it wants a balance of power" by including the U.S. in the region.

It is not just the U.S. that is stepping up its engagement with Southeast Asia.

In January, the U.S. and the U.K. conducted their first joint naval drills in the South China Sea. Japan is setting up arrangements that would allow it to share supplies with Canadian and French forces as part of efforts to bolster defenses in light of China's maritime advances. Japan also agreed with France, during two-plus-two defense talks last month, on greater military cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

"Whether this is coordinated or requested or done spontaneously, we should see this as an alignment of interests and greater burden-sharing by the U.S. and friends, a key demand in Trump's 'America First' mantra," ICU's Nagy said.

Trump's messages to Vietnam and other U.S. partners, however, are unlikely to be consistent. He is expected to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida in late March in a bid to bring an end to the bitter trade war between the two countries. Improving bilateral relations on the economic front could weaken their united front against Beijing on security issues.

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