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Vietnam leapfrogs to world stage

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Vietnam leapfrogs to world stage

The 25th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit has helped elevate the S-E Asian country’s diplomatic profile and marked a milestone in Da Nang’s socio-economic development

The month of November 2017 saw a flurry of international diplomacy in Asia when top leaders of the world descended first in the beautiful Vietnamese coastal city of Da Nang for the 25th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit from November 6 to 11 before proceeding to the East Asia Summit in Manila. Vietnam’s diplomatic profile at the world stage has leapfrogged in recent years. At the 24th APEC Summit on November 20, 2016, in Lima, Peru, State President Tran Dai Quang had announced that Vietnam would host APEC 2017 and time came soon for Vietnam to proudly host the event.

The event marked a milestone in Dan Nang’s socio-economic development and partly outlined the vision for Da Nang’s future. This flagship event witnessed the participation of 21 member economies, along with thousands of delegates, international journalists, and world-leading entrepreneurs in attendance. Alongside, a business summit, a dialogue between APEC top leaders and leaders of the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ABAC), as well as the Inter-Ministerial Meeting of the APEC Foreign and Economic Ministers took place. To Vietnam’s credit, it provided state-of-the-art infrastructure, convenient traffic, diversified and high-quality accommodation and services, well-trained human resources, as well as security. Indeed, it was an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Da Nang to cement its role and status on the national and international stage.

It was one of the most significant achievements of Da Nang’s breakthrough policies over the past two decades and opened the path for industrialisation and modernisation. Being a major tourist destination with its beautiful beaches, natural scenery and hospitable residents, the event catalysed to boost tourism and service sector, green growth, and high-tech, making various breakthroughs in urban planning and development. Indeed, Da Nang has topped the provincial competitiveness index (PCI) for six times, and three years in a row (2013-2015). What makes Da Nang stand out among other Central Vietnamese localities is the irresistible charm of its land and people. Once Da Nang was chosen to host the APEC Summit, the city started preparations and renovated the infrastructure and the urban setting, conducted communication and training programmes, as well as guaranteed security, healthcare, and logistics aspects of the event of an epic magnitude. By successfully hosting the important Summit, Da Nang is now “Vietnam’s new rising Dragon”, living up to French journalist Bruno Philip’s praises. In the process, Da Nang earned its own reputation as an “environmental city”, an “Asian townscape”, or the “city of festivities”, thus positioning itself on the international stage.  

What did the leader achieve in the deliberations? The theme of the Summit was “Creating New Dynamism, Fostering a Shared Future”. The Asia-Pacific leaders agreed to address “unfair trade practices” and urgently called for the removal of “market distorting subsidies”, in contrast to communiqués they had issued in the past. What stood out was the joint statement issued at the end of the Summit, which demonstrated the influence of US President Donald Trump, who has vowed to rewrite trade pacts that he sees as unfavourable to the US.

The joint statement resolved to make trade more inclusive, support improved market access opportunities, and address unfair trade practices. The call was for removing market-distorting subsidies and other types of support by governments and related entities. In sharp contrast to the 2016 statement which was not critical of the World Trade Organisation, the 2017 statement made a mention on the need to improve the organisation’s “negotiating, monitoring and dispute settlement functions”. Also, in contrast to the 2016 statement which made no mention of bilateral trade, the leaders noted the “importance of bilateral, regional and plurilateral agreements”. The change in the language demonstrated the influence of Trump’s “America First” policy. It is already known that Trump prefers to do bilateral trade deals and in one of his first acts as president pulled the US out of the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

While at Da Nang, many leaders had hoped that the meeting would help resuscitate a moribund TPP. The multilateral deal, promoted by Barack Obama as a way to avoid Chinese dominance in Asia, was aimed to eliminate tariffs and trade barriers across a large bloc of nations. But in one of his first acts of office, Trump withdrew from the pact. 

No doubt, Trump left his own stamp in his typical unusual manner at Da Nang. The US and Vietnam did not have a happy past: it is still grappling with the legacy of its war with the US two generations ago. It is difficult to forget in a country that fought fiercely for its freedom first with the French and then with the US even though over three million of its countrymen perished in the protracted war. Over the years, though bitter memories have dissipated, poisonous inheritance has not. Both sides suffered heavy casualties and so share terrible pain but the US of the past and the US of today are different as world situation has changed dramatically and new realisation has dawned begging readjustment of policy priorities, which is why Trump is more popular now in Vietnam than he is back at home. According to a Pew survey, 58 per cent of Vietnamese were confident in Trump’s ability to guide international affairs.

It was significant, therefore, that the legacy of the Vietnam War particularly resonated in Da Nang during Trump’s 12-day tour of Asia. It may be recalled that in 1965, the Ninth Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first conventional American combat unit deployed in Vietnam, landed on a beach in Da Nang. Hundreds of thousands more troops landed subsequently. Even as the communist forces engaged in fierce combat with the US forces, Dan Nang known as China Beach for its prettiest stretch of sand gave the US troops a sun and surf respite. Today, Da Nang is back as vibrant as it was before, as the present author found during a visit to this tourist resort in March 2017, and is again luring visitors. Five star luxury hotels and skyscrapers demonstrate how one of the five remaining Communist nations has successfully launched market economy while retaining its socialistic principles of governance. It is a matter of pride and honour for the Da Nang city planners who fought hard to win rights to host the APEC forum that world leaders such as Trump, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China and other were in attendance, thereby elevating Da Nang’s status to the world stage.

Vietnam no longer harbours bitterness of the past. In the changing geopolitical situation, new orientation in the wake of China’s belligerence in regional issues has catapulted Vietnam-US bonhomie to another level. The visit of Barack Obama in his last year of presidency, followed by the visit of Japan’s Emperor and Empress to Vietnam early this year elevated Vietnam’s status at a global stage. The strategic contours on regional issues have dramatically changed and nations are readjusting their priorities in response to the changed situation. This is demonstrably clear as an American aircraft carrier is scheduled to make a port call in 2018, likely at Cam Rang Bay, the naval base once used by the Americans, thereby reflecting the changing contours of Vietnam-US relations.

Vietnam’s attitude to fight a war is, ‘fight with everything available’ — jungles, deep ocean, the rivers, mountains, bones and flesh. But when they shake hands, they begin true friendship. That reflects the Vietnamese adage that a commitment once made is permanent. Such a Vietnamese approach reflects the current narrative of Vietnam’s tilt towards the US, which is developing under the looming shadow of a far more enduring and challenging antagonist: China. “Like many countries in the region, Vietnam is keen for an American counterweight to balance against the growing heft of China”.

Vietnam has a running feud with China over certain portions of the South China Sea and to defend its claim from Chinese threat, it is beefing up its military with the help of India, Japan and the US. In recent years, Beijing which claims nearly the entire waterway as its own has repeatedly clashed with Vietnam over competing claims. In May 2017, Nguyen XuanPhuc, the Prime Minister of Vietnam, became the first leader from Southeast Asia to meet with Trump in Washington. Since diplomatic ties were normalised in 1995, Vietnam-US ties have seen incremental growth and external environment has contributed to this in a large measure.

However, Vietnam was not happy when Trump pulled the US out from the TPP. The US being the top destination for Vietnamese exports, access of Vietnamese products to its No 1 market could be adversely impacted now onwards. But what went unnoticed was that Trump launched a tirade against predatory economic policies and ‘unfair trade imbalance’ with some countries just after he heaped praise on China. In particular, he talked about “violations, cheating or economic aggression” in the region, reflecting a fierce reprimand. He accused the predatory economic policies of certain countries, accusing them of having “stripped” jobs, factories and industries out of the US.

His stance on “America First” came starkly clears throughout his speech. Trump is perturbed with the current trade imbalance that the US faces and his stand on “America First” is based on this premise. In contrast, China’s President Xi Jinping did not directly respond to Trump’s challenge on trade but sought to paint himself as a champion of economic openness, globalisation and fight against climate change, in contrast to the isolationist Trump. Xi observed: “Openness brings progress while self-seclusion leaves one behind …the road ahead will not be smooth but we will not give up on our dream.”

What stood out at the APEC Summit is Trump’s desire to move away from regional free trade agreements in preference to bilateral deals and this was in stark contrast to the stance adopted by other leaders at the Summit. In particular, Xi talked about the value of international “cooperation” and economic “openness”. Xi praised many of the results of an increasingly connected world. He also referred to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and the massive plan to connect Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa with a vast logistics and transport network.

China has registered three decades of breakneck growth and as a result, its global influence has expanded significantly. Despite its aggressive stance on many regional issues, Beijing maintains that it poses no threat to any country, pledging peaceful development on the international stage. But the problem arises when China wants to impose its own will and terms on how this growth strategy should pan out. One is not sure if the APEC served any definite purpose in defining a clear strategy for growth in the Asia and the Pacific. The fact that India as a rising economic power remains excluded from this important grouping dents the credibility of the organisation to a large extent. That is an aberration that remains to be corrected.

The writer is currently Indian Council for Cultural Relations India Chair Visiting Professor at Reitaku University, Japan. The views expressed are his own and do not represent either of the ICCR or the Government of India.





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