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Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s America tour is expected to give a strong boost to the Vietnam-U.S. relationship, which has been built up and thrived over the past two decades.

Vietnam-U.S. Ties Will See Turning Points following PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s Visit
PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc lands on St. Andrews airport, Washington on May 30. Photo: VGP
Before PM Phuc touched down on the U.S. soil to start a three-day official visit, diplomats and experts expressed hopes that the two war foes would enhance bilateral relations as the two countries seek benefits from the other under the Trump administration.
Move Trade Ties forward
Trade is expected to be on the top of the agenda when President Donald Trump hosts PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House on May 31 after the president unplugged the U.S. from the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, of which Vietnam was poised to be the biggest beneficiary, several days after his inauguration.
Two-way trade reached $52 billion last year from $15 billion in 2008 and almost nothing in 1994, when former President Bill Clinton lifted a trade embargo that had been in place since the Vietnam War ended.
Vietnam has for years maintained a favorable balance with the U.S., with a record surplus of $32 billion last year, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
President Trump in March ordered trade agencies to investigate a list of 16 countries that have trade surpluses with the U.S, among which Vietnam ranks sixth.
Although the U.S. has withdrawn from the TPP trade pact, the two countries should think of a bilateral free trade agreement, Anthony Nelson, director of Albright Stonebridge Consulting Group, told the Vietnam News Agency.
At the White House meeting, PM Phuc is expected to convince President Trump to advance trade ties that may be harmed by the new U.S. administration’s protectionist policies.
During an interview with Bloomberg before his departure for the U.S., PM Phuc said Vietnam is a big supporter of free trade and the two sides are working on “new mechanisms” to boost bilateral trade in a way that benefits both countries.
At end-March, the two countries reactivated the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) to discuss deepening trade ties as well as address outstanding bilateral trade issues.
The U.S. also used the meeting as an opportunity to reaffirm the Trump Administration's commitment to expanding ties with the Asia-Pacific region, including with Vietnam, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said in a statement.
PM Phuc noted that Vietnam is importing a considerable amount of high-value products from the U.S. that will help create American jobs and is shipping to that market goods that the U.S. no longer produces. In addition, enterprises of the two countries will ink deals worth a dozen of U.S. dollars during the visit.
“I can assert that the two sides hold lots of potential to ramp up economic cooperation, rev up economic growth and create jobs in both nations. This will be one of the key topics that I will discuss with President Donald Trump,” PM Phuc emphasized.
Upbeat Sentiment
PM Phuc’s visit is much hoped to ease the Trump administration’s concerns over the trade imbalance and to convince the U.S. government not to change their trade policy toward Vietnam, so that domestic production remains unharmed, said economist Tran Du Lich.
Retired diplomat David Brown has said in a publication that the two countries might agree to explore a bilateral trade pact that would entail many TPP-like trade reforms.
Adam Sitkoff, managing director of the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Vietnam, commented the fact that PM Phuc is the first leader from an ASEAN country to visit the White House since Donald Trump became President shows the importance that the US places on its relationship with Vietnam. “I expect that commercial issues will feature prominently in Mr. Phuc's visit.”
AmCham has repeatedly voiced that the chamber backs the beginning of discussions about a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries. “The American business community in Vietnam stands ready to do our part to make this goal a reality,” said Sitkoff.
Similarly, Jonathan Moreno, chairman of AmCham Vietnam, was quoted by the government portal as saying that the meeting between the two leaders was expected to give a strong boost to bilateral trade and investment ties in the future.
President Tran Dai Quang stated at a conference on Vietnam-U.S. trade outlook on May 19 that the two countries hold great trade potential to be tapped. Vietnam expects to shop more farm produce, seafood, apparel and electronics products to the U.S. and import high-tech products from that market.
PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc meets with executives of top U.S. companies in New York on May 30. Photo: VGP
Aim for Top Position in FDI
As of May 2017, American companies had ploughed $10.21 billion worth of direct investment into Vietnam, being the ninth-largest investor in the Southeast Asian country, according to statistics of the Vietnamese investment ministry.
U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius has repeatedly expressed hope his country would soon be the number-one investor in Vietnam.
“The U.S. and Vietnam enjoy a strong economic partnership. We are eager to see U.S. investment in Vietnam grow; also, foreign direct investment plays an essential role in ensuring U.S. economic growth and prosperity, creating jobs, spurring innovation and driving exports,” the ambassador said.
“With the growing strength of our bilateral relationship and continued work of the U.S. Commercial Service with American companies wishing to conduct business in Vietnam, it’s not surprising to see the United States rise to the top of countries investing in Vietnam,” he noted.
President Tran Dai Quang has called upon U.S. enterprises to boost investment in Vietnam in the areas of energy, oil and gas, infrastructure, finance-banking, pharmaceuticals, education-training, and information technology.
ExxonMobil, PetroVietnam, and PVEP on January 13 signed two agreements on the Blue Whale gas project worth around $ 10 billion. The project is expected to make the U.S. one of leading investors in Vietnam, Quang said.
Military Cooperation and East Sea
Security and defense cooperation has become an increasingly important pillar of bilateral relations.
Vietnam and the U.S. have built frameworks such as the Joint Vision Statement on Defence Relations in 2015 and a protocol on defence cooperation. Cooperation in this field will be reinforced, especially in peacekeeping, humanitarian aid, and navigation security and safety, according to Vietnamese Ambassador to the U.S. Pham Quang Vinh.
Military ties between the two former foes have been strengthened over the past years and received a real boost when President Barack Obama decided to lift the decades-old ban on lethal arms sales imposed on Vietnam during his visit to Vietnam in May 2016.
In late May before PM Phuc’s departure for the America tour, the U.S. handed over six Metal Shark patrol boats and a high edurance cutter to the Vietnam Coast Guard. The U.S. has also sent warships to the Cam Ranh Bay naval base.
“Vietnam’s future prosperity depends upon a stable and peaceful maritime environment.  The United States and the rest of the international community also benefit from regional stability, which is why we are here today, and it is why we are very pleased to be working together with the Vietnam Coast Guard,” said Ambassador Osius at the handover ceremony.
East Sea (in Vietnamese) or South China Sea will likely be a topic that PM may raise during talks at the White House.
Starting in the late 2000s, increased Chinese challenges, particularly Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, gave a new impetus to the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership, which was reached in July 2013 during the then President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to the U.S.
In the interview with Bloomberg, PM Phuc deflected a question on whether Vietnam seeks a stronger U.S. presence in the South China Sea.
“We would need to discuss together with the stakeholders to make sure that all parties will benefit from whatever action that we decide to take to ensure peace in this area,” the prime minister said of the South China Sea.

MINH TUAN