Hanoi Is Happy Cozying Up to Trump


At the U.S.-North Korea summit, the host may be the biggest winner.

As the world waits to see if U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un make any headway at next week’s summit in Hanoi, the hosts see a diplomatic coup of their own. Vietnam, among the world’s poorest pariah states only three decades ago, is a keen host of this most delicate of bilateral negotiations.

Summits are not cheap, with Singapore estimating that the last one between Trump and Kim cost it around $12 million. They are also inconvenient, as roads close and security protocols interrupt daily life—prompting angry outcries online in Singapore last June. For a poorer country such as Vietnam, meeting the financial and security requirements of the hastily planned summit could prove substantial.

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But rumors of Vietnam hosting a summit between Trump and Kim have been circulating in Hanoi since the first meeting was announced in March 2018. While it remains unclear if Vietnam was ever a serious contender for what became the Singapore summit, the potency of the symbolism was obvious—both Vietnam and Korea had been split in half by Cold War politics and fought American wars as a result. Hanoi, today a popular destination for American investment, was once, like Pyongyang, battered by constant U.S. bombings and decades of sanctions. If Vietnam could bury the hatchet with the United States, why not North Korea?

Less visible—but equally important—has been Vietnam’s own willingness to play host. For Vietnam, the summit provides both prestige on the global stage and a chance to make a good impression on a U.S. president whose unpredictability the Vietnamese find worrying.

Vietnam is no stranger to hosting global leaders—Trump himself visited for the 2017 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang along with China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and leaders from other countries both big and small. Such conferences, along with high-level Association of Southeast Asian Nations meetings, have occurred in Vietnam because intergovernmental organizations tend to assign hosting responsibilities on a rotating basis among members. But today, as Hanoi readies a peace summit between two nuclear-armed enemies, it feels more than ever like a trusted member of the international community.

Sweetening the prestige is the praise showered on Vietnam by the Trump administration in its messaging on North Korea. Vietnam, senior White House officials have said, can serve as a roadmap for North Korea, a fellow single-party state, in its economic development and global integration.

But there are also more pressing issues at hand for Hanoi, which sees the summit on its soil as beneficial to its own security. China, which is today viewed as Vietnam’s primary geopolitical threat, has seen its influence on the South China Sea issue expand in recent years, much to Hanoi’s chagrin. And, coincidentally, the summit’s dates fall exactly 40 years after Vietnam resisted a bloody Chinese invasion in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war. While the government takes a subdued approach to commemoration out of diplomatic considerations, memories of the tens of thousands killed run deep in Vietnam.

Although Vietnam was once diplomatically united with the Philippines against China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea, including in waters that would conventionally be considered Vietnam’s and the Philippines’ under international law, the election of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 saw Manila change its tone. To the anger of his own military, Duterte walked away from a legal victory at The Hague that saw China’s nine-dash line, on which Beijing rests the basis of its maritime claims, declared to be without basis by international arbitrators.

Hanoi Is Happy Cozying Up to Trump