Between an Uncertain Duterte and Trump and a Powerful China, Vietnam Sees Stability in ASEAN

With relations in the region increasingly unpredictable, Hanoi hopes the Asian regional organization can provide some calm.
11/28/2016 12:59 pm ET
Prior to Trump’s victory at the polls, the U.S.-Vietnam relationship had been on a steady path toward improvement.
Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press
Prior to Trump’s victory at the polls, the U.S.-Vietnam relationship had been on a steady path toward improvement.

PERTH, Australia ― As the world catastrophizes about what a Trump presidency means for global security and stability, Vietnam and the Philippines are marking one year since the signing of a strategic partnership that signaled Hanoi’s attempt to further solidify its ties in the region.

But following the clinch of this bilateral pact in 2015, Southeast Asia witnessed numerous landmark developments. The Philippines won its arbitration case against China, another heavyweight in the region, over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elected a new, less predictable leader ― Rodrigo Duterte. And the friend both nations share, the United States, has now chosen its own unpredictable head of state ― Donald Trump.

While these changes have altered the dynamics of the region and Duterte and Trump work to develop their foreign policy strategies, Vietnam has thus far remained friends with both the U.S. and China. And as it works to balance relations with these two nations, Hanoi is hoping the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, will play an important role in any further disputes in the South China Sea and provide some balance to any instability.

The U.S. and Vietnam 

Obama recently made an official visit to Vietnam.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters
Obama recently made an official visit to Vietnam.

Prior to Trump’s victory at the polls, the U.S.-Vietnam relationship had been on a steady path toward improvement since the end of the war and the resumption of diplomatic relations. Within the last year, U.S. President Barack Obama made an official visit to the country and lifted the arms sale embargo that had been implemented during the Cold War. In many ways this was one of the last hurdles to full normalization.

Today, however, this increased understanding between the two nations is on hold as Vietnam, and the world, assesses the significance of America’s power shuffle. What might a Trump presidency mean for this improved relationship, especially given his blunt critique of Beijing on the campaign trail? As with most Trump policies, many are still unsure, but with Vietnam’s departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Trump’s announcement of a U.S. withdrawal as well, it is clear Vietnam is apprehensive about its friendship with the United States.

And the U.S is not the only country that Vietnam is wary of. Vietnam must also factor in the Philippines’ Duterte’s off-color and outlandish comments. His “pivot” to China and tough anti-U.S. rhetoric have left many wondering if this means another regional shake-up, and for Vietnam, yet another reason to place faith in ASEAN.

Why Vietnam Is Hopeful About ASEAN

The organization serves as a valuable channel for discussion and cooperation past Southeast Asian bilateral engagem
Soe Zeya Tun / Reuters
The organization serves as a valuable channel for discussion and cooperation past Southeast Asian bilateral engagement with larger powers.

ASEAN is a useful forum and whilst the “paper tiger” has little to directly add to U.S. and China’s differing stances in the South China Sea, it is at least a (sometimes) unified Southeast Asian voice. 

While nothing is guaranteed, the organization serves as a means for discussion and cooperation past Southeast Asian bilateral engagement with larger powers. It also attracts the attention of more influential and larger countries worldwide. China and America look at it for engagement purposes, Australia has tried to gain membership and even Russia has begun to engage with the body more heavily as well.

For Vietnam, however, ASEAN is not only a general regional stabilizer, but a forum that helps Hanoi manage aspects of its relations with the U.S. and the Philippines.

And Vietnam certainly understands diversification of ties ― it is one of the tenets of the nation’s foreign policy and it has greatly increased the number of its strategic partnerships from 2011 to 2015. Its partnership with the Philippines is being watched possibly more closely since both the Hague ruling and Duterte’s words. Any change to the U.S. alliance and U.S. presence in the region would be concerning to Hanoi. 

As I reported a few months ago, Vietnam’s reaction to the Philippines’ win on the South China Sea ruling in the Hague’s Permanent Arbitration Court was muted. This response, however, was not because Hanoi had sided with Beijing, but merely that antagonizing its large and thwarted neighbor would have been a bad move. And those watching would have noticed many nations stayed quiet, some members of ASEAN included.

'For a country like Vietnam ... the most challenging issue is how to construct and maintain the balance among the big powers.' Dinh Hoang Thang, Vietnam’s former ambassador to the Netherlands

“For a country like Vietnam and the Philippines, the most challenging issue is how to construct and maintain the balance among the big powers,” Vietnam’s former ambassador to the Netherlands Dinh Hoang Thang, who has been known to publicly comment on South China Sea disputes, said at a conference in Tokyo. “And here I don’t see the big differences between the approach of the Philippines and Vietnam.”

The partnership between the Philippines and Vietnam goes beyond that of merely a tangential shared interest in the balance of powers. In fact, as clear through their recent strategic partnership, the two nations have taken a more direct approach to cooperation with a focus on ASEAN’s role in their relationship.

ASEAN and its importance is a central tenet of the Joint Vision Statement, or JVS, signed by Vietnam and the Philippines as part of the signing of their strategic partnership on Nov. 17 of last year. The JVS made particular note to place ASEAN at the center of the relationship between the two nations in order to maintain, “peace, stability and security in the region.”

This, of course, could be optimistic considering the distinct lack of consensus at the 2012 and 2015 summits and recent shows of bilateral friendship between ASEAN members and China, including a defense deal between Malaysia and China. 

But the efforts to maintain the group remain strong, and just recently, Vietnam held a conference focusing on maritime tensions. According to reports from Viet Nam News, the conference “stress[ed] the need to promote ASEAN’s central role in managing disputes in the East Sea.”

Dog Days of Duterte

For Vietnam, a strong Chinese influence over the Philippines could change ASEAN in favor of China.
Hoang Dinh Nam// Reuters
For Vietnam, a strong Chinese influence over the Philippines could change ASEAN in favor of China.

ASEAN is a forum for varied nations to cooperate, reinforcing multilateralism, consensus and cooperation ― all things Vietnam values. Does Duterte value those things? Although Duterte has gained international media attention for his unpredictability, he is also next in line to be the chair of ASEAN, whose summit will be held in the Philippines in 2017.

What Duterte believes about ASEAN then matters too, not just his off-the-cuff anti-U.S. rhetoric. And tighter relations between the Philippines and China could potentially undercut this. An actively pro-China Philippines, if it is at the cost of other members, could harm unity within the organization and counteract Vietnam’s efforts to use ASEAN to balance out powers in the region, particularly since Vietnam views the multilateral ASEAN as a useful counter to China’s growing influence on issues such as the debates over the South China Sea territory. For Vietnam, a strong Chinese influence over the Philippines could change the organization in favor of China. 

From the perspective of the Philippines, however, Duterte’s pivot to China may help to salvage the country’s economy in spite of a Donald Trump presidency, a concern which may be at the forefront of Duterte’s mind more than it appears.

Since the U.S. election, Duterte has publicly congratulated Donald Trump. “Long live, Mr. Trump! We both curse at the slightest of reasons. We are alike ... I don’t want to quarrel anymore, because Trump has won,” he said. And while he may not want to “quarrel,” experts in the region speculate this does not mean he is unaware of the potential harm Trump may cause the Philippines were a close relationship to continue. 

Despite worries of his own erratic behavior, President-elect Trump may end up saving the Philippines’ relationship with the United States.

As Ernesto Pernia, a professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics, pointed out at a press conference held by Duterte’s cabinet, the nation’s economy may be adversely affected should Trump push on with tariffs for U.S. firms, many of which operate in the Philippines.

“[Duterte] foresaw that there’s this likelihood of Trump becoming president, so he decided to pivot to China,” Pernia, also economic planning secretary, said at the presser. This pivot to China is also about protecting Filipino livelihoods and “diversifying [the Philippines’] friends,” he added.

Duterte, of course, has reason to be cautious of Trump, even if he feels they are like souls. Will this rebalance the relationship with the U.S.? Who can say yet? However, Duterte’s anti-U.S. sentiment is not new, and a real push towards China would concern Hanoi. The reactive personalities of both, compared with the measured words of the Obama administration, would be a concern also.

Fracturing Friendships: Philippines’ Pivot to China

Duterte has indicated he may move his country closer to China.
AFP via Getty Images
Duterte has indicated he may move his country closer to China.

Improving Philippine relations with China is something ASEAN, Vietnam and the U.S. all saw as initially important. But Duterte has moved the rhetoric one step further, suggesting the U.S. should leave the Philippines, wanting to discontinue the alliance all together and possibly move closer to China

In fact, Vietnam has already begun worrying about the Philippines’ pivot. The potential shift towards China has caused,“Vietnam’s assurance in the steadiness of the Philippines [to slip],” The Nikkei Asia Review wrote earlier this month.

Vietnam and the U.S. were not expecting the Philippines, a formerly close friend of the U.S., to make such a sudden change, especially post-arbitration against China, and both the U.S. and Vietnam worry that the brash decision may not be the last under a Duterte administration.

Murray Hiebert, a senior Southeast Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington has suggested that Vietnam did not entirely sign up for the confusion of a Duterte administration.

“Vietnam was quite enthusiastic about its new-found friend in the Philippines under Aquino, but Duterte’s constant emotional outbursts against Washington has them a bit concerned,” he told Reuters.

Then again, just as Vietnam and the Philippines signed their strategic partnership deal under an older administration, Duterte’s ire has been reserved for the current U.S. president, not the president-elect. He has, as I wrote, praised the man. If that can surmount Duterte’s U.S. skepticism or the two develop an unlikely friendship, all may not be lost. So despite worries of his own erratic behavior, President-elect Trump may end up saving the Philippines’ relationship with the United States.  

'China now has an incentive to push diplomacy to consolidate its presence in the South China Sea' Carlyle Thayer, Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy

In fact, some regional experts note that better China relations may end up profiting East and South Asian nations.

Emeritus Professor Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy, has said that he believes that a Philippine swing to China will actually have the benefit of calming the region, and possibly quieting an aggressive China. 

“Ironically, Duterte’s current pivot to China will likely depress Chinese assertiveness and further militarization of the Spratly islands,” Thayer wrote in a briefing last month. “... China now has an incentive to push diplomacy to consolidate its presence in the South China Sea.”

The combination of Trump’s election, and whatever implications that may have for the future of relations in the region, along with Duterte’s unpredictability leave Vietnam to pin hopes for stability in the region on ASEAN, far away from such fiery, personality-driven politics. But as trade relations in the region fluctuate, it will be interesting to see where the new year will lead.

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