American bull in an Uneasy East Asia

Hanoi-based analyst Nguyen Quang Dy assesses the visit of Donald Trump to East Asia amid regional uncertainties and tensions.

American bull in china shops

Nguyen Quang Dy

As President Donald Trump boarded Air-Force One last week for a presidential escapade to cover five Asian capitals in 11 days (as a record), both insiders and outside observers got nervous watching an American bull coming to china shops. Trump is expected to stick to a prepared script when he delivers his address to the APEC summit, but he is likely to go off-script (and nod off) during some bilateral talks. What could he say or do to reassure nervous Asian leaders, or would he make them even more nervous? Why does he join the ASEAN summit but not the East Asia summit in Manila? Why Ivanka is not coming to Asia with him, and Melania not coming to Vietnam? Why Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook), Tim Cook (of Apple) and Satya Nadella (of Microsoft) are not  his large entourage? Would the longest trip by a US President be successful as expected or just a learning trip?

Troubled background 

After nearly a year in office, the Trump administration is still unable to define a policy for Asia and the South China Sea. It is partly due to internal rifts among factions in the administration, as well as to Trump’s “America First” commitment, thus neglecting Asia (withdrawing from TPP). The confusion with conflicting views means Asian countries receive confusing and conflicting signals about how the US approaches China. While Steve Bannon (chief advisor), Robert Lighthizer (trade representative), and Peter Navarro (trade council director) prefer threatening China with a trade war, Jared Kushner (senior advisor) wants a flexible approach to Beijing, and  John Kelly (chief of staff) thinks China is not a competitor but simply “another power”. Some say the White House has become a center for “adult education”.

Meanwhile, James Mattis (defense secretary) and Rex Tillerson (state secretary) offer a more traditional view of America in Asia based on a US-lead alliance along the line of an “Indo-Pacific framework”. In fact, this vision was originally initiated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (back in 2007) to connect four Asia-Pacific powers (including the US, Japan, India, and Australia). At APEC Summit in Da Nang 2017, Trump has the chance to clarify the new vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” as recommended by his key advisors. McMaster (national security advisor) said, “This trip is a great opportunity to demonstrate America’s, and the Trump administration’s, commitment to the Indo-Pacific”. (What China Wants From Trump, Mira Rapp-Hopper, Foreign Affairs, November 7, 2017).

The aggressive rise of China (both militarily and economically), accompanied by Trump’s “America First”, now threatens regional security and vital interests of smaller states in the South China Sea. This troubled geo-strategic environment is the background for India’s pro-active willingness to “pivot” to East Asia and join the renewed concept of “Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue” (QSD) initiated by Shinzo Abe in 2007. The Japanese were then not ready to support constitutional amendment (article 9) to rearm Japan, and the Australians (under Kevin Rudd) decided to withdraw from the QSD for fear of China’s reaction. But the more they fear China, the further China keeps pushing. China will soon move the giant Tiankong dredger to Paracel islands for continued dredging work, challenging the US and allies.

Recently, as the Trump presidency is weakened by Robert Mueller’s investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 election, Trump is looking for a foreign policy scoop. The Vietnamese are concerned that he is tempted to strike a bargain with China over North Korea at the expense of security in the South China Sea. For long, Beijing keeps pushing Washington for “a new type of great power relations” along the line of “G-2 diplomacy”. In fact, Chinese diplomats have lobbied hard to get access to the inner circle of the presidency through family contacts. Bill Hayton (BBC/Chatham House) commented, “The Trump administration demonstrated that it either does not understand or sufficiently care about the interests of its friends and potential partners in Southeast Asia to protect them against China,” (The Week Donald Trump Lost the South China Sea, Bill Hayton, Foreign Policy, July 31, 2017).

North Korea on his mind

North Korea would be on top of Trump’s mind during his long trip to Asia, especially in Tokyo, Soul, and Beijing. According to Michael Green (CSIS vice president), “one of the key purposes of the trip is to pressurize North Korea”. (Press Briefing on President Trump’s Trip to Asia, CSIS, November 1, 2017). While this pressure is “absolutely essential”, broader American interests in Asia should endure well beyond the on-going Korean missile crisis and the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang. Therefore, it would be a big folly and disaster if Mr. Trump is over obsessed by North Korea’s nuclear threat (as blackmail) and underestimates the larger danger from China and the growing threats in the South China Sea.

There are three basic scenarios for war: The first would be how to defend the US and allies against an attack. The second would be how to preempt North Korea from attacking. The third would be how to prevent war. McMaster has said the US is prepared for war if diplomacy doesn’t work, and Washington has sent three carrier battle groups to the region. But how can Trump articulate this position? Can he talk about a preventive war when Japan and South Korea are not ready to sign on? Now North Korea still pursues the “decoupling” strategy to make the US so scared of a nuclear attack that it will not risk defending Japan and South Korea. This blackmail and brinkmanship game is to keep the US off balance.

Perhaps the key achievement of this trip is for the American President to show up in Asia. People say in Asia the fact that he shows up there would be 80% of success. What exactly he can do is another matter, for much is still in doubt. While in Tokyo, Soul, and Beijing, the focus of discussion would be on the North Korea danger, at APEC Summit in Da Nang, Trump was expected to announce his new vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” (to replace Obama’s Asia Pivot policy). Earlier in Tokyo, Trump was believed to have consulted Shinzo Abe as this concept was his original idea. As people are anxiously waiting for Trump to clarify the new vision, he has failed to explain how his new Indo-Pacific concept is different from Obama’s Asia Pivot, though in the speech he mentioned it many times.

Now, it is still unclear if the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” is a consistent strategy or just a mere slogan. As the White House boss is an unpredictable character, the job of the “axis of adults” is to restrain and persuade him, though depending on which issue at a certain time (like managing the stock exchange). It seems they have not been able to persuade their boss to focus more on China (as the roots) than on North Korea (as the top of the tree) and join the East Asia summit where the South China Sea is discussed. Hopefully, at least, they can persuade Trump to wear the local shirt issued by the host for a photo-op.

At china shops 

In Tokyo where the Asia trip would start, Trump affirmed the role of the US, “No one, no dictator, no regime, and no nation should underestimate ever American resolve”. Trump also affirmed the role of Japan as a “treasured partner” and “crucial ally” of the US. Particularly Trump affirmed the US-Japan alliance and America’s commitment to the “Indo-Pacific region”. Trump at last understood the fundamental need for US-Japan security cooperation, thus the mutual security treaty is “suddenly coming back to life” as a “critical element” of US foreign policy. Trump said, “I believe that there never have been such close bonds”… “The US and Japan are 100% together” and “I am thrilled my first stop was with you”… Finally, in a public display of affection, Abe gave Trump a baseball cap as souvenir, inscribed with something symbolic: “Donald and Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater”.  (Japan Knows How to Pet the Donald, Orville Schell, Foreign Policy, November 7, 2017).

Since Donald Trump was elected, Shinzo Abe has quietly resorted to personal diplomacy to make friend with the most unpredictable president of the US (and connect with the “axis of adults” in the White House). Xi Jinping would try to do more or less the same, though with a different style of diplomacy and for a different motivation. In Beijing, the American real estate king now practicing as the US President would meet the newly crowned Emperor of China. The two heads of state of the most powerful empires of the world seem to be “strange bed fellows” locked in a dangerous “Game of Thrones” for world supremacy, with their ambitious dreams. They would act like the two bif robots of different generations, programmed differently and operated by two different operating systems.

What about Vietnam? Over half a century ago, people of Da Nang were puzzled to welcome the first Americans marines landing on the China beach. This week, people of Da Nang are puzzled again to welcome another invasion of some 10.000 guests landing there for the APEC summit. Some say Dà Nang has experienced two repeated typhoons: the Damrey and the APEC. While the toll of Damrey in central Vietnam is known (with 27 deaths), the result of APEC is not. The APEC summit is like a big circus with 21 players as heads of member states (including 7 super stars) with 39% of global population, 59% of global GDP, and 48% of international trade. Vietnam has joined APEC for 20 years or so, but its economy keeps falling behind. APEC or ASEAN or ODA cannot help if Vietnam fails to execute a comprehensive institutional reform and mobilize its inner strength. At the APEC Summit, TPP-11 (without the US) was in trouble as Canada might turn TPP-11 into TPP-10 (or TPP-0). Given new developments, Vietnam may end up empty-handed without any TPP or EVFTA.

At the APEC summit, Donald Trump is a superstar. Vietnam is the first Southeast Asian nation to welcome him for a state visit. He is the first American president to visit Vietnam during the first year in office. Next year, an American aircraft carrier is expected to visit Cam Ranh (for the first time after the war) as a symbolic gesture of stronger military cooperation and a new sign of Vietnam’s departure from timidity (while still walking the tight rope). As the Philippines (under president Duterte) has pivoted to China, Vietnam has suddenly become the US’s key strategic partner in the region as a “frontline” state against China’s military expansion in the South China Sea. Hopefully, Hanoi’s strategic vision would be well aligned with Washington’s strategic vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region”.  While the Vietnamese should learn from the Japanese in personal diplomacy to win the heart and mind of Trump (and his key advisors), they should not harbor any illusion and forget the expansive lessons of the past. Neither Xi Jinping nor Donald Trump should be taken for granted as a reliable partner. Given the suspicion of a possible US-China “G2” secret deal (over North Korea’s nuke threat), neither Vietnam nor any other claimant in the South China Sea would trust Trump as a reliable mediator (with “special chemistry”) to help solve the conflict of interests there without accommodating China’s unlawful demands, at the expense of their vital interests.

America pivots again 

According to SCIS, there are three basic pillars for the US pivot to Asia. The first was security (such as the “maritime security initiative” to build capabilities). The second pillar was about economics. That was gone when Trump withdrew from TPP without anything to replace it. The third pillar was much more intensive focusing on Southeast Asia, including ASEAN and East Asia Summit. Trump’s absence from the East Asia Summit will go a long way to undercut regional diplomatic momentum. This depends on how much Trump listens. Michael Green said Trump listened to Abe at Mar-a-Lago and he would not rule out that the Trump Administration would come back from this trip and starts refining its Asia policy.

The value of this first trip to Asia is to give the new president a chance to focus on why Asia is so important. Hopefully, this is what Mr Trump is finding out. A couple of weeks ago, State Secretary Rex Tillerson came to CSIS to give a speech. He used the term “predator economics” to refer to the way China is rolling out its ambitious infrastructural plan (for “One Belt One Road” program) with concessional finance undercutting international norms. It is time for the US to develop a strategy to push back what China is trying to do economically.  If  Trump does not return to TPP, he should come up with a new strategy in its place.

According to Michael Green, there are three basic schools of thought in the US administration debating China policy. The first one basically agrees with the “Thucydide’s trap” theory by Graham Allison (including Jared Kushner). The second one believes the US should stick with other key allies and partners as Japan, India, Australia (including Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster). The third one believes the US should deal with China along the line of “great power relations” (G-2). Now, the third one is diminished while the second one prevails, with the foreign policy establishment supporting the Indo-Pacific concept.  Unfortunately, right now the State Department is headed by a lonely chief with few Indians.

Anyway, State Secretary Rex Tillerson spoke of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” as against the Sino-centric order. The US should support Japan to revive the informal regional grouping of four democratic powers (including America, Japan, India, Australia). This concept was proposed by Shinzo Abe in 2007 (but short-lived). The reason for Abe to resort to personal diplomacy to get closer to Trump (and the axis of adults) is his long fear that Washington may be attempted to cut a deal with Beijing for “America first”. (US Allies Fear Trump Will Pull a Nixon in China, Andrew Browne, Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2017).

What should Vietnam do

Now, the Vietnamese have two critical tasks to undertake. First (domestically) Vietnam should focus on a comprehensive institutional reform (in economics, politics, and democratization). The later they do the higher price to pay. Vietnam should not wait and follow China. Sooner or later China must change. By then, it would be too late for Vietnam.  Secondly (externally) Vietnam should support and join a strategic framework (beyond ASEAN) to include key strategic partners sharing collective security interests (in economics, politics, defense). To protect national independence and sovereignty, no member country in ASEAN (or ASEAN itself) is capable of standing up to China on its own (especially in the South China Sea).

To these ends, the Vietnamese should undertake these tasks urgently yet carefully. If reform was delayed and changed too little too late, it would be meaningless. However, if it was done in a rush without due diligence and consideration of objective rules, it would easily fail. The topic of comprehensive institutional reform has been discussed extensively and the frameworks for change have been carefully drafted (as the Report “Vietnam 2035”). Now, we should focus on discussing how to build such a strategic concept of alliance. This informal “de facto” alliance is created for self-defense, not against any other party.

The development of US-Vietnam strategic cooperation has been reflected in the MOU on Bilateral Defense Cooperation (2011), the Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations (2015), and the Joint Statement for Enhancing the Comprehensive Partnership (2017). While most of defense cooperation matters between the US and Vietnam have focused on non-traditional areas, the strategic significance of the comprehensive partnership has been growing, especially on maritime security cooperation in the South China Sea. For example, the “Maritime Security Initiative” has assisted Vietnam to build maritime capabilities. In May 2017, the US transferred to Vietnam the Hamilton-class cutter Morgenthau (renamed CBS-8020) as the largest VCG vessel (3.200 tons), and six high-speed patrol boats. Japan has also transferred to Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) four DN-2.000 patrol boats (2.500 tons).

As the US-China-Vietnam strategic triangle is more unstable and ASEAN is more polarized by Chinese influence, Vietnam should intensify its strategic cooperation with other powers beyond ASEAN (including America, Japan, India, Australia) as a new Quadrilateral partnership.  During his visit to Vietnam (May 2016) President Obama announced the lifting of the arms ban, thus opening up a new opportunity for enhanced strategic cooperation. During the visits to the US by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (May 2017) and Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich (August 2017), both sides reached new agreements on strategic cooperation, including the visit of a USS aircraft carrier to Cam Ranh (in 2018). Therefore, APEC summit 2017 is a good opportunity for President Trump to make new commitments for strategic cooperation in the South China Sea as the basis for a “de facto” US-Vietnam strategic partnership.

End notes

Would APEC Summit 2017 pass as “one night stand” and as a big circus running another show, or be remembered as an important turning point for Vietnam to change? Would Trump be remembered as an American bull in china shops with an “America First” speech, featuring “Indo-Pacific” repetoire (10 times yet without a clear meaning), or as a reliable partner whose contributions would make this country a better place for Vietnamese people and the South China Sea less dangerous as a powder keg? Could the environment in Da Nang (and elsewhere) be improved as a good place to live, so people do not have to migrate and the cute monkeys in Sơn Tra are not extinct? It would be meaningless without refereeing to environmental, human right and South China Sea problems. If these things are not going to happen, APEC and Trump’s “Indo-Pacicfic dream” will be another anecdote to be forgotten soon.


  1. 1. Press Briefing on President Trump’s Trip to Asia, CSIS, November 1, 2017
  2. Shinzo Abe’s Strategic Diamond, Rory Medcalf, Diplomat, January 15, 2013
  3. Trump Goes to China, Richard N. Haass, Project Syndicate, November 6, 2017
  4. The Week Donald Trump Lost South China Sea, Bill Hayton, Foreign Policy, July 31, 2017
  5. 5. What China Wants From Trump, Mira Rapp-Hopper, Foreign Affairs, November 7, 2017
  6. Japan Knows How to Pet the Donald, Orville Schell, Foreign Policy, November 7, 2017
  7. US Allies Fear Trump Will Pull a Nixon in China, Andrew Browne, WSJ, November 7, 2017

NQD. November 12, 2017