The 2nd Trump-Kim Summit: Vietnam’s Place in the Sun
Poster of the 2nd summit between the US and North Korea in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Photo: EPA/EFE)
By Tai Wei Lim

The 2nd Trump-Kim Summit: Vietnam’s Place in the Sun

Feb. 21, 2019  |     |  0 comments

The announcement of Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi as the site of the second Trump-Kim summit has truly marked the Southeast Asian nation’s coming of age. It shows that the Southeast Asian nation has truly come into prominence on the global stage. This is not the first time it is making international news associated with a US President.


In May 2016, President Barrack Obama pulled up a plastic chair and ate the traditional Vietnamese noodle bun cha with US celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain at a simple street restaurant in Hanoi. It caused a stir not only in Vietnam but also in the Southeast Asian region and the world. President Obama was already very much well-regarded by the man in the street in the US but, after doing this, he was well-known throughout East Asia. Bourdain later revealed that the total bill for the dinner came up to USD 6.


Given this background, the choice of Vietnam for the second Trump-Kim summit reinforces Vietnam’s international recognition and fame. This time, for political and geopolitical reasons. The fact that Hanoi is able to play the role of a mediator between the world’s largest superpower (or a hyperpower) and a hermit nation that is trying to integrate with the rest of the world will undoubtedly propel Hanoi’s status as an international peacemaker and mediator.


Vietnam as a host appears to be attractive for the following reasons. First, Vietnam has strong relations with both Pyongyang and growing strategic affinity with Washington D.C. Vietnam is slowly gravitating towards Washington’s embrace due to its liberalizing policies as well as the need to manage relations with Beijing. American security cooperation with Vietnam has increased tremendously, so much so that USS Carl Vinson has called on Da Nang while the US Department of State has authorized commercial sales to Vietnam.


The US Department of Defense has also provide Vietnam with funding for boosting the Southeast Asian country’s maritime security capabilities. Vietnam’s military personnel have made contact with a Japanese submarine that called at Cam Ranh Port/base for the first time.  Economically, Vietnam has benefitted from Japan’s ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Plus One strategy to diversify into Southeast Asia. Vietnamese industries have reaped benefits from the current trade differences between the US and China.


Vietnam is also supporting US efforts in keeping the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) open for multilateral use and trade. The other country that forms an arc of democracy with the US and Japan is India. In August 2017, Hanoi achieved cruise missile capabilities with the help of India by purchasing Indian-made BrahMos Anti Ship cruise missile system, fulfilling a capability gap that had been marked in Vietnamese naval capabilities, and greatly improving Vietnamese preparedness and strength in maritime capabilities. Thus, overall, Vietnam enjoys solid relations bilaterally and multilaterally with the US, India and Japan.


At the same time, Vietnam is also a socialist nation that is close to Pyongyang. Both Hanoi and Pyongyang had good ties with the former Soviet Union and were part of an international socialist bloc. They have some similarities when it comes to political systems. For years, they had been part of a socialist fraternity and, in many ways, they still are. The big difference between Hanoi and Pyongyang is that Vietnam has gone through several rounds of economic reforms since the 1990s. Like the Chinese, its economy has opened up and reaped the benefits of opening up, becoming one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia.

A reality check, regardless of the venue of the second Trump-Kim summit, is still the ongoing negotiations for CVID (Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization).

Vietnam also has a thriving manufacturing industry powered by foreign investments, oil and petroleum industry and a growing pool of middle-class consumers. Vietnam’s Doi Moi reforms, as well as China’s economic reforms, South Korea’s chaebol-led development and Singapore’s pragmatic development, can serve as inspirations for Pyongyang to study. Pyongyang may be able to select features suitable for its local conditions. In other words, Vietnam may become an alternative or simultaneous model of economic development for Pyongyang if the latter is able to give up its nuclear missiles and nuclear weapons development programs. Socialist China is also a strong developmental model for socialist governments and strongman regimes keen to develop their economies.


Vietnam is a showcase of what Pyongyang can achieve as long as it opens up. Politically, Vietnam still maintains a collective leadership structure which represents a contrast to China’s strongman system that is rapidly centralizing power. The different Chinese and Vietnamese systems allow Pyongyang to pick and choose features relevant to its own socialist economy. Vietnamese development is also driven by Western ASEAN and Northeast Asian foreign investments. The people of Vietnam are known to be frugal, hardworking and a highly disciplined industrial force and thus are under courtship by ASEAN, Taiwanese and Western investors. Investing in Vietnam is also considered as a way to hedge risks in case the Sino-US trade frictions worsens.


On another level, Vietnam symbolizes neutrality. Vietnam belongs to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an organization that is perceived to be in the driver's seat for East Asian Regionalism. Moreover, ASEAN is made up of three monarchies (Brunei, Thailand, Malaysia), three non-socialist Republics (Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines), one strongman regime (Cambodia) and 2 socialist Republics (Vietnam and Laos) and one democratizing regime (Myanmar/Burma). Within the organization, there are strong Chinese friends (Cambodia and Laos) and US allies (The Philippines, Thailand) as well as neutral parties. If Vietnam hosts this round, it will be within the rubrics of a perceived neutral organization like ASEAN.


From a broad macro perspective, in terms of perception, it would be a rotation between a neutral venue in the non-socialist world like Singapore with a socialist venue like Vietnam. This may somewhat reflect the two parties: Washington D.C. (leader of the liberal democratic capitalist free world) and Pyongyang (a Stalinist state with a command economy that has aspirations for economic development). This gives parity and equity to the two participants in the talks, one liberal democratic capitalist state and the other a strongman one-party authoritarian political system in the Stalinist tradition. Symbolically, for high context cultures like Northeast Asia, this may be a form of symbolic equity in location selection.


A reality check, regardless of the venue of the second Trump-Kim summit, is still the ongoing negotiations for CVID (Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearization). Pyongyang still needs to get through that in order to achieve the amazing economic success that Vietnam enjoys as a fast developing socialist political system with a market based economy, or aspire to become an economic superpower like the rise of China which has lifted millions of people from poverty in an unprecedented world historical achievement, or become like Singapore, one of the richest economies in the world with a political system that demonstrates high integrity focusing on effective and good governance.


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