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Vietnam Trying to Understand US Policy on South China Sea


Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, center right, shakes hands with Chinese Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan, center left, as Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, top left, U.S Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, top right, and Peruvian Trade Minister Eduardo Ferreyros, bottom right, look on after a group photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Trade ministerial meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam on Saturday, May 20, 2017.

The prime minister of Vietnam will become the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House since Donald Trump became president in January.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc speaks during a joint press briefing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following their meeting at Phuc's Cabinet Office in Hanoi, Jan. 16, 2017.
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc speaks during a joint press briefing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following their meeting at Phuc's Cabinet Office in Hanoi, Jan. 16, 2017.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is expected to ask for answers about United States policy toward Chinese expansion in the disputed South China Sea.

Nguyen is also expected to discuss trade and maritime claims in the South China Sea when he meets with Trump next week.

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines claim parts of the South China Sea. China and Taiwan claim nearly all of the sea.

Former President Barack Obama helped Southeast Asian countries defend their claims to parts of the important waterway. But it is not clear whether Trump will do the same.

Concerns over South China Sea

Murray Hiebert is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research group in Washington.

“Being the first Southeast Asian leader to visit Washington, the Vietnamese prime minister will want to explore U.S. plans and goals for engagement with the larger Southeast Asian region. Vietnam will also want to understand U.S. policy and strategy toward the South China Sea and China’s activities there, particularly at a time when Washington is looking to Beijing to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.”

China continues to worry Southeast Asian countries by sending coast guard ships into their exclusive economic zones in the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea. China is also building artificial islands on which it can place radar systems and military aircraft.

Philippines China Disputed Sea
Philippines China Disputed Sea

Last year, Obama cancelled a ban on the sale of military weapons to Vietnam. In 2014, he increased joint naval exercises with the Philippines. And he ordered U.S. ships to pass through areas of the sea claimed by China. All of these actions have angered China.

China uses historical records to support its claim to 95 percent of the Sea, which is valued for its fisheries and fossil fuels.

However, Trump is working with China to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. China is North Korea’s top trade partner and supporter.

U.S. - China relations

Some experts say Trump may have decided that the U.S. will not become involved in any South China Sea disputes so that it can have better relations with China.

Frederick Burke is a partner with the international law firm Baker & McKenzie in Ho Chi Minh City.

“They don’t really need to say it, but it’s very important that the (Southeast Asian) region is seeing that the U.S. is still engaged.”

China is trying to reduce American influence in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. It has begun talking to leaders in each country in the region -- including Vietnam -- about ending their disputes. China sometimes offers the countries aid and investment, such as encouraging Chinese to visit Vietnam.

Last week, China and a 10-member group of Southeast Asian countries reached an agreement to prevent conflicts between ships of each country. China had delayed negotiations on the agreement, which is not yet final, for more than five years.

Brian Eyler is the Southeast Asia program director at the Stimson Center, a research group in Washington.

“All the Southeast Asian states tend to play a hedging strategy with great powers. Not one state is too interested in getting too far into China or the United States or another great power’s sphere of influence. There are too many lessons of history that show that that’s the wrong road to go.”

Replacing Trans-Pacific Partnership

The Vietnamese prime minister took office last year. During his visit, he is expected to remind the Trump administration about a U.S. promise to help clean up the toxic substance Agent Orange. American military forces used the plant-killing chemical during the Vietnam War from 1961 to 1972.

US and Vietnamese officials press start button for Agent Orange clean up project in Da Nang, April 19, 2014. (Marianne Brown/VOA)
US and Vietnamese officials press start button for Agent Orange clean up project in Da Nang, April 19, 2014. (Marianne Brown/VOA)

Experts believe Nguyen also will ask administration officials about a free-trade deal to replace the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership. Vietnam would have gained much from the agreement which would have lowered import taxes for its goods in many markets -- including the U.S.

The U.S. left the agreement in January. At the time, Trump said the U.S. would consider deals with individual countries if they were good for America.

I’m Jill Robbins.

Correspondent Ralph Jennings reported this story from Taipei. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

engagement – n. the act or state of being involved with something

rein in – phrasal verb to limit or control (someone or something)

artificial – adj. not happening or existing naturally : created or caused by people

fishery – n. a part of the ocean where fish and other sea creatures are caught

fossil fuels – n. a fuel (such as coal, oil, or natural gas) that is formed in the earth from dead plants or animals

hedge – v. to protect yourself from (something)

strategy – n. a careful plan or method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time

sphere – n. an area of influence or activity

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