Trump-Kim summit 2.0: Vietnam’s wisdom

February 19, 2019 18:10
File photo of riders passing by the presidential palace in Hanoi. US President Donald Trump announced on Feb. 8 that his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will be held in Hanoi on Feb. 27 and 28. Photo: AFP

That US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un have chosen Vietnam as the venue for their next summit may probably have more significance for Hanoi than for Washington and Pyongyang.

There is talk in diplomatic circles that Vietnam had indeed sought to play host to the first Trump-Kim summit last year, only to lose to Singapore in the end.

But Vietnam could have been on the final list of possible venues that were agreed upon by the two nations. As such, it is not surprising that Hanoi has been chosen as the venue for the summit this time.

In seeking to host the summit, Vietnam cited its proven capacity for holding major international conferences, such as the APEC summit in 2017 and the World Economic Forum on ASEAN last year.

As far as Trump and Kim are concerned, Vietnam and Singapore share attributes that make them ideal venues for the summit.

First, Hanoi can enable global media to disseminate information about the summit freely. Also, Vietnam, which is ruled by the Communist Party, is fully capable of guaranteeing order and security during the summit and preventing any embarrassing scene between Trump and Kim from happening. 

Although Singapore appears far more suitable than Vietnam in fulfilling the role of a reliable intermediary in global affairs, the latter actually has quite a lot of potential for playing that same role.

As one of the very few remaining communist states in the world, Vietnam has little difficulty in securing the trust of other authoritarian powers.

In recent years, the United States has established not only close economic ties but also strategic and military relations with Vietnam in an apparent attempt to counter China’s growing influence in the region.

Given that, Hanoi would definitely not miss the opportunity of rising to regional or even global prominence presented by the West.

As an atheistic society, Vietnam has been serving as a de facto buffer among other major ASEAN member states by maintaining its cultural neutrality among the Islamic Indonesia, the Catholic Philippines, the Buddhist Thailand and so on.

That different religions have been able to co-exist peacefully in Vietnam is a reflection of the country’s diversified and inclusive environment under the communist rule.

As a former French colony, Vietnam has preserved a lot of French elements in its culture to this day.

In particular, the unique Vietnamese coffee and culinary culture is a resounding embodiment of East-West fusion.

This unique cultural element has been downplayed in the past for historical reasons.

However, the Trump-Kim Summit 2.0 will definitely prove a golden opportunity for Vietnam to once again promote this image.

Last but not least, like Singapore, which has been striving to enhance its soft power as a tiny nation and secure US support by playing host to international summits, Vietnam can also, by hosting the upcoming Trump-Kim meeting, send a subtle message to hawkish leaders in Beijing that Washington has got its back strategically over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

But still, Hanoi cannot afford to antagonize Beijing.

In Vietnam’s grand strategic blueprint for the next 10 years, the degree to which the country can facilitate integration within the greater Beibu Gulf area and then reach out to the rest of the globe through ASEAN would determine its future economic and geopolitical success.

And in order to ensure the successful execution of this blueprint, Hanoi would need to hold international events one after another, and could not afford to have a poor relationship with Beijing.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 15

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal