America’s Changing Relationship with Vietnam

“I admire Mike ‘Goodspaceguy’ Nelson because he keeps trying,” said Brian Neely, the American Center Coordinator for the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. “He is certainly one of the weirdest people to run for City Council in Seattle.” After some discreet googling, sure enough, Brian was right. Michael George Nelson, commonly known as Goodspaceguy, has sought elected office in the State of Washington not once, not twice, but on twelve separate occasions. In addition to city council, Goodspaceguy had thrown his cosmic helmet into the ring for the Washington Governorship and a contested race for the U.S. Senate.

At this point, we were about 35 minutes into the American Center’s bimonthly English Club. Much to my fortune, October’s theme was billed as “U.S. Election Terminology” and centered around the perplexing traditions of American democracy. I had arrived early and soon realized that I would not be joined by other expats or travelers. Out of the sixty people furiously scribbling notes that evening, I was one of two Americans. The other was Brian, the American Center program coordinator. And this event was by no means a casual affair, with my backpacker fashion sense sticking out like a sore thumb.

But let me rewind. On my first day in Saigon, I finally mailed in my absentee ballot for the 2018 midterm elections at the U.S. Consulate. Afterward, I lazily meandered down the beautiful, tree-lined boulevards of Saigon’s consular district, walking past bookshops, street vendors, and skateboarders. It was one of the few neighborhoods spared from the deafening motorbike traffic that consumes the rest of Ho Chi Minh City. Apart from intermittent conversations with students practicing their English, I admired the revolutionary statues silhouetted against McDonalds and Starbucks signs. But I also had another mission. In my quest to mingle with Vietnamese civil society, several folks recommended that I visit the American Center and attend their events. I checked their Facebook page and immediately registered for their evening English Club without hesitation. My penchant for the curious and the political got the best of me. After all, how would the United States frame the democratic ritual of elections in a communist country?

The English Club covered a variety of topics that evening. Brian began with the standard processes and structures that define the American republic before wading into more complex and obscure discussions about jury selection and voter suppression. Audience members peppered Brian with questions about the length of judgeships or how you can break a partisan deadlock. We briefly covered historical precedents on desegregation and the current legal challenges of gerrymandering. And, of course, audience members discreetly raised questions about President Trump, ranging from derogatory to praiseworthy. As audience participation increased, Brian distributed Merriam-Webster Dictionaries for correct responses. If there was one takeaway from the evening, it was that Vietnamese citizens are genuinely intrigued by the American electoral system. 

But I also hoped for a second takeaway. Most importantly, I assumed that an English Club discussing U.S. Election Terminology would provide a rare glimpse into the Vietnamese perception of America. What was the United States for most Vietnamese people? What major changes had shifted our relationship since the Vietnam War? And lastly, how has increased foreign direct investment–very much on display in Saigon–changed the country? The American Center’s English meetup, one of many programs sponsored by the United States for Vietnamese locals, exposed an interesting narrative. The American Center sat in close proximity to major western franchises like Starbucks and H&M but also within walking distance to the famously anti-American War Remnants Museum. Curious students intent on practicing their English interrogated passersby against a backdrop of pro-Communist propaganda. The American Center literally and metaphorically resided at Vietnam’s current crossroads. Moreover, it provided clues to a changing U.S.-Vietnam relationship. And my quest to understand the relationship began with an article I read nearly a week before.

Why Vietnam Loves Trump

After stuffing my backpack and arranging my night bus out of Hoi An, I had an hour to kill at the hostel. I was scrolling through the latest news when I stumbled across the Politico piece “Why Vietnam Loves Trump”. “What!”, I audibly exclaimed to the surprise of my fellow guests. Was Trump that popular in Vietnam? In 2017, the Pew Research Center reported that African regimes, including Tanzania, Kenya, and Nigeria, all held favorable views of Trump. But I hadn’t considered the possibility that Vietnam and Southeast Asia might also admire our bombastic leader. Trump’s famous call to Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and his popular support in the Philippines were well documented. Trump seemed to garner adoration from strongmen. But I could not explain why 58 percent of the Vietnamese public felt that Trump would do the right thing in world affairs. I had to investigate.

Wherein would the answer lie? Had Donald Trump convinced a sizeable portion of the Vietnamese public that the United States would safeguard their interests? 

Trump’s tough talk on China appears to be a driving factor. During the campaign, Trump referenced China countless times and transformed his Twitter attacks into a full-blown trade war. As Trump’s initial tariffs on solar panels and washing machines snowballed into a dangerous tit-for-tat on steel and aluminum during the summer, investor confidence shrank in China and the United States. Despite the negative economic impact, many quietly cheered from the sidelines in Vietnam. Any blow to China was welcome news. While the current incarnation of Vietnamese vitriol toward China is fueled by the artificial construction of islands in the South China Sea, their animosity is far from recent.

Centuries before the French colonized Vietnam, China intermittently invaded and occupied Vietnam from 111 BC through 938 AD. In the early 15th Century, the Chinese again sent an occupying force, stealing national archives and kidnapping Vietnamese intellectuals. While the Vietnamese may be right to despise the Chinese, this also means that the Chinese influence in Vietnam is undeniable. This was on full display during my travels. From pagodas that feature Mandarin characters to the ethnic makeup of the country, Vietnam has incorporated several cultural norms from China. As a telling example, a Couchsurfer in Saigon explained that the linguistic composition of the Vietnamese language is nearly 50 percent Cantonese. Yet after the French mandated that the Vietnamese use English characters in the 19th century, the country never returned to its linguistic Chinese roots.  

While the West fueled Vietnamese disdain throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries, China would dominate the popular imagination after the United States departed in 1975. The first shock came in 1974 when the Chinese government invaded the Paracel Islands, which it continues to occupy today. The tension escalated into direct conflict shortly after. Following the Vietnam War, Vietnam’s decisions to invade neighboring Cambodia and wield influence in Laos were derided in China. China had propped up Pol Pot in its bid to contain a Vietnamese regime that had aligned itself with the Soviet Union. On February 17, 1979, China invaded Vietnam after Vietnamese forces routed Pol Pot and toppled his genocidal regime in neighboring Cambodia. Although the Vietnamese successfully repelled Chinese forces, the ensuing battle cost countless lives and expended treasure. Nearly 35 years later, little has changed. According to a 2014 Pew Research Poll, approximately 78 percent of Vietnamese have an unfavorable view of China, making it an outlier in the region.   

But does a Vietnamese hatred of China completely explain its affinity for Trump? Not entirely. Trump’s legendary cult of personality, grounded in his reputation as a ruthless and savvy businessman, has enchanted Vietnam’s growing entrepreneurial sector. During informal conversations with hostel workers, couchsurfers, and locals, many confirmed that the Vietnamese are enamored with business acumen. Although lagging behind other factor-driven economies, the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) notes that Vietnamese adults have growing entrepreneurial ambitions. Of the 2,000 survey participants, nearly 63 percent of these adults began businesses to take advantage of opportunities rather than having no other option. The GEM notes that nearly 20 percent of working adults own their own businesses, which is the third highest rate around the world. Perhaps this accounts for some of the 28,900 likes on the “Vietnamese for Donald Trump” Facebook Page.

Additionally, Vietnam, much like their communist counterparts in China, has grown increasingly smitten with capitalist luxuries and purchases. Anecdotally, on more than one occasion, I saw luxury sports cars cruising around the motorbike-jammed streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Despite prohibitive consumption taxes of up to 150% on imported vehicles, car registration in Vietnam has steadily increased in the past five years. Moreover, luxury car sales have skyrocketed. Mercedes, for example, has sold 22 percent more cars in 2016 than 2015. The desire for luxury has spilled into retail as well, with a forecasted 6 percent growth rate in the luxury market in 2019.  

Of course, many are surprised that Vietnam has extended an olive branch to a country that devastated its infrastructure during the country’s protracted War for Independence. And yet the creeping influence of American culture and diplomatic warming helped. As Politico notes, after the rapprochement between Vietnam and the United States, the state-controlled media have covered American presidents positively. Trump is no exception. Most outlets printed stories that portrayed Trump positively or in a neutral light. Tran Le Thuy, the current director of the Centre for Media and Development Initiatives, points out in Politico that the Vietnamese government likely does not want to cover personal scandals like the Mueller probe since the Vietnamese media “don’t want to cause any diplomatic troubles.”

Nevertheless, this admiration was not always mutual. Trump initially fumed over the ballooning trade imbalance with Vietnam, lumping Vietnam into the pool of countries that exploited American generosity. But that was quick to change. When Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited the White House in 2017, he agreed to a series of enticing trade kickbacks and investment opportunities to benefit U.S. companies. Shortly after the visit, the U.S. Commerce Department announced 13 new transactions amounting to $8 billion, with nearly $3 billion of U.S.-produced content that would produce 23,000 American jobs. Caterpillar, for example, agreed to provide generator technology for some 100 generators in Vietnam.

While Trump has warmed to Vietnam, the country has increasingly looked to the west for support. Vietnam joined the United States as an early supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and continues to receive arms from the United States. Several locals informed me that the Vietnamese prefer to protest outside of the U.S. embassy or consulate since the United States tends to respond to key policy issues. As the United States slowly pivots to the East, what does the future hold?

America, China, and Vietnam Today

With the unpredictable shifts in the Chinese relationship with Vietnam and America’s relationship with China, this murky triangle of power can be difficult to disentangle. While America has escalated a trade war with China, Trump and his advisors continue to court Chinese support in managing the North Korean issue. For Vietnam, China is too large to ignore and economic expansion appears to be inevitable. Beyond the geographic proximity and cultural influence, the economic and military dimensions shape the sophisticated bond between the two countries. On the economic side, China has leveraged Vietnam as a lynchpin for its One Belt, One Road Initiative. Despite already maintaining 18 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) throughout the country, the Vietnamese government has flirted with the possibility of introducing additional SEZs to revive its flagging economy. 

Although the Asian Development Bank has argued on behalf of well-structured SEZs, some experts advise caution before selling the keys to the castle through generous land offers. When SEZs launched in neighboring Laos and Cambodia, the Chinese government received a 99-year land lease for their implementation. In Laos, critics have assailed the Mohan–Boten Economic Cooperation Zone not as the win-win strategy that China regularly touts, but as a backdoor attempt to strengthen its influence throughout Southeast Asia. Yet China has pressed forward. It has integrated SEZs into its One Belt, One Road initiative and now flirts with additional special trade areas for manufacturing growth. 

On the military side, however, the rift between the two countries’ purported alliance and de facto distrust have become more apparent. The expansion of artificial islands and the deployment of military hardware in the South China Sea are blatant examples of Chinese adventurism. Today, many Vietnamese officials bitterly refer to the South China Sea as the East Sea and claim sovereignty over the patchwork of islands known as the Paracels. In 2014, hundreds of protesters took to the streets after the Chinese deployed dozens of ships to tow an entire oil rig just 150 miles off the coast of disputed waters. Although the Vietnamese government initially permitted peaceful protests, they soon turned violent with armed clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese workers. In the industrial zones in the provinces of Binh Duong and Dong Nai, Vietnamese rioters attacked Chinese and Taiwanese factories by looting electronic equipment and ransacking factory floors.

Today, tensions bubble below the surface. Despite the Communist Party of Vietnam’s attempts to disentangle economic interests from military incursions, many Vietnamese citizens perceive China as a menace. In June, Vietnam’s foreign ministry condemned the Surface-to-Air Missiles that were discovered on Phu Lam Island through satellite imagery. Hanoi claims sovereignty over the island so China’s actions appeared brazen. Weeks later, a new wave of protests consumed southern Vietnam as news of the impending deal to secure SEZs leaked to the Vietnamese public. Much like the 2014 protests, people overwhelmed streets with placards that read “No Special Zone — No leasing land to China — Even for one day!” and “Down with those who sell our country.” Although I could not find any news to prove it, one Couchsurfer claimed that the Chinese consulate in Ho Chi Minh City moved its location several years ago to avoid the mounting protests outside its gates.    

And where does the United States now fit into this picture? With U.S.-China Relations growing increasingly tense, many experts have emphasized the strategic importance of our relationship with Vietnam. And the United States has capitalized on Vietnam’s proximity to China and its longstanding animosity for its larger neighbor. In 2015, the Obama White House signed the U.S.-Vietnam Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations which advanced a shared security agenda and laid the groundwork for Vietnam’s initial participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Shortly after, the United States formally lifted its last Vietnam War-era arms embargo in May 2016, and today provides maritime security assistance to the Vietnamese navy. On October 18, not long after my trip to Vietnam, former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made his second visit of the year to the Socialist Republic, spending time in Ho Chi Minh City in meetings with his defense counterparts and visiting airforce installations. 

As military relations warm, economic growth has also boomed. Vietnam and the United States maintained international trade worth some $35 billion in 2014. At 21 percent of its export volume, the Vietnamese count the United States as its largest destination for goods, beating out China by 8 percentage points. And the trade flows in the other direction too. Today, although it’s less than one percentage point, the United States also recognizes that Vietnam is a growing recipient of U.S. goods. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has pointed out that U.S. exports to Vietnam have risen 77 percent from 2014 to 2016, amounting to $4.4 billion. Today, the USDA claims that Vietnam has grown to become the 11th largest export market for U.S. agricultural products.

Yet skepticism still abounds. For one, several experts have expressed their worry over the mounting trade deficit, fueled in part by the U.S. reliance on imported semiconductors and electronics from Vietnam. Moreover, despite Vietnam’s jump in the Ease of Doing Business Index over the past four years, convoluted regulations and government nepotism still stymie U.S. investments. While firms like McDonalds and Starbucks have increased their presence in the country, obstacles persist. The United States has pressured Vietnam to improve the country’s business environment and lower barriers to entry for U.S. firms. Some of this has paid off. 2018 set a record for outside Foreign Direct Investment in cities like Hanoi and according to Vietnamese media, city authorities simplified nearly 61 administrative procedures that year.  

In the triangular nexus of China-U.S.-Vietnam relations, Vietnam has also emerged as a winner from this past summer’s U.S.-China trade war. Since 2010, Chinese minimum monthly wages have more than doubled from 1120 Yuan (163 USD) to 2480 Yuan (361 USD), making SEZs like Shenzen pricier for western tech companies. Vietnam’s common minimum wage for state-owned enterprises, however, stands at a measly 61 USD while private firms can offer 161 USD, substantially lower than China’s minimum wage. The emerging trade war with China has only accelerated Vietnamese manufacturing, especially of electronics Foreign Policy writes. The Yen Binh Industrial Zone, for example, lies in Thai Nguyen province and produces a growing share of Samsung’s smartphones.

Apart from the soft power that emanates from Western consumption, the United States has prodded Vietnam towards transparent governance and democratic opening. While my attendance at the American Center’s English Club in Ho Chi Minh City was illuminating, these Centers also maintain considerable programming through student visa information sessions, topical film screenings, and formal language classes. In 2018, the U.S. Consulate offered over 130 events and activities to Vietnamese locals, ranging from discussions of American blues music to America’s LGBTQ community. While many of these activities ooze with indirect soft power, others were uncharacteristically forward. The October 5th event, U.S. Strategy in Southeast Asia, featured a talk from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs regarding U.S. military tactics in the region.

Much of this maps well to overall aid transfers to Vietnam. In the past decade, USAID foreign aid has increased 80 percent from $87 million in 2008 to $150 million in 2017. Of this pot of money, Vietnam has earmarked approximately $55 million for governance, followed by $38 million for its Health and Population portfolio. According to a 2016 State Department press release, USAID has already assisted with 150 laws that shape regulations and decrees and consulted 50 Vietnamese agencies to improve their governance. Meanwhile, institutions like the International Republican Institute and the National Endowment for Democracy have angled to boost transparency in the country. NED’s 2017 roster of programmatic support included approximately $750,000 for activities that supported freedom of assembly, civil society development, rule of law, and democratic activism.  

Yet the concept of democratic participation may still be a foreign concept for many Vietnamese citizens. Over my last steaming bowl of beef pho in Ho Chi Minh City, a Vietnamese local informed me the Communist Party still exercises control over the framing and perceptions of participation and choice. “Take voting,” he noted. “Despite the existence of democratic elections, the Communist Party of Vietnam will vote for you if you choose to boycott your civic duty. So why would I vote?” And while there was genuine curiosity about American democracy and participation at the American Center English Club, many Vietnamese remain disillusioned about the prospect of genuine democracy for their country. In the 2018 Democracy Perceptions Index, approximately 52 percent of the Vietnamese population asserted that their voice rarely mattered in politics. Although the Vietnamese comprehend that their country is far from democratic, disillusionment with democracy is a growing global trend.  

With the start of 2019, where does the United States go from here? While the U.S. government can bank on a reserve of goodwill from the Vietnamese people, Trumpian diplomacy has undervalued soft power and discounted cultural influence. Despite visits by Mattis or new investment opportunities for General Electric and Caterpillar, the Trump administration has framed the U.S. – Vietnam relationship through the lens of economics and security. And others accept this view. As Democrat and Republican alike now view China as strategic adversary rather than strategic partner, many in the foreign policy establishment now embrace Trump’s zero-sum worldview of China. For them, economic clout and military brawn have eclipsed the value of diplomatic influence.

And yet, soft power remains formative. While Chinese observers may find evening discussions of Goodspaceguy at the Ho Chi Minh City consulate laughable, the United States should double-down on these efforts. First, state department staff and USAID should expand programming to additional locations across Vietnam and collaborate closely with civil society. While the Communist Party of Vietnam may reluctantly grant concessions to the United States, the war of information and influence may be the most powerful U.S. weapon. Second, the United States could employ regional success stories. In neighboring Myanmar, World Learning, under the purview of the U.S. embassy and consulate, manages two Institutes for Political and Civic Engagement. These institutes train the next generation of Burmese leaders and offer formal classes on democratic governance and capacity building. While the United States lacks the regional proximity that China possesses, it can play a supportive role in nudging Vietnam towards democracy. After all, the shared prosperity of the region might count on it. 

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