TAIPEI — When Singapore played host in June to the first summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, businesspeople in the city-state made money from summit-themed merchandise and side events. About 2,500 journalists visited, and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was quoted saying the summit would bolster his country’s image abroad.
Now Vietnam, as host to a second Kim-Trump summit scheduled for February 27-28, should expect to get even more, country specialists say.
The summit in Hanoi, likely covering U.S. concerns about the buildup of North Korean weapons, will earn Vietnam new respect from both democratic and communist countries, good for its multi-country foreign policy and reputation as a go-to country for business including large international events.
“All the stakeholders, North Korea, the United States, China and South Korea, trust Vietnam to be a neutral host,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor with the University of New South Wales in Australia. China backs North Korea, which the U.S. government fears is developing nuclear weapons.
“Vietnam’s success will reaffirm the correctness of its foreign policy of ‘diversifying and mutilateralizing’ its external relations and being ‘a reliable friend to all,’” he said. “Vietnam benefits from the leverage it acquires as host for the second summit.”
Ties with world’s biggest economy
Once war-ravaged Vietnam’s quick economic growth since the late 1980s stands to get special attention at the summit from the United States.
Foreign direct investment drawn by cheap labor has driven the Southeast Asian country’s economic growth of 6-7 percent since 2012. Last month alone, registered investment from abroad grew 27.4% compared to the same month a year ago. Also last month Vietnam joined the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, a free-trade deal encompassing about 13.5 percent of the world economy.
The U.S. government had placed Vietnam under a 19-year trade embargo through 1994.
American consumers now look to Vietnam for shoes, clothing and electronics as U.S. firms increasingly eye the Vietnamese middle class as a viable export market, said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at the market research firm IHS Markit.
“Vietnam’s relationship with the U.S. will definitely be a key feature of this meeting,” Biswas said. “Although the meeting is obviously between the U.S. and North Korea, I think the backdrop of President Trump visiting Vietnam is also very positive for Vietnam. It offers the opportunity for bilateral dialogue.”
U.S.-Vietnam relations are “moving to a new higher level,” he said, and this summit “puts a spotlight” on that trend.
In 2017 Trump lauded Vietnam’s economic progress as a “great miracle” despite a trade gap favoring Hanoi. His comment tells North Korea that as a country with Communist rule like Vietnam’s it can improve too, said Frederick Burke, partner with the law firm Baker McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City.
The summit will add to Vietnam’s list of major international events, analysts add. Countries in Asia, Thayer said, “know that Vietnam is capable of providing security, excellent accommodation, and professional diplomatic experience to managing a high-level summit meeting.”
The 21-member Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders meeting took place in 2017 in Vietnam’s central coast city Da Nang. Next year Vietnam will chair the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a role that requires holding a series of large-scale events.
“I think that Vietnamese leaders have not really been confident in the international arena,” said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh City University of Social Sciences and Humanities. “This is a chance for them to be used to receiving a lot of attention in the world.”
Vietnam, already trusted by the summit parties, will go on record this month for supporting a regional peace effort if the two summit participants make progress on handling North Korea’s nuclear weapons, Burke said.
“It’s stature in terms of the international community, not just a responsible member but actually as a leader who steps up to the highest level of international relations and international problem solving,” Burke said.
Vietnam, like other Southeast Asian governments, pursues a balanced foreign policy to get security and economic benefits from China as well as from Western powers.
At the summit in Singapore, Trump and Kim issued a broad joint statement covering U.S. security guarantees for North Korea and expressing support for a cut in nuclear weapons.