Why Vietnam Isn't Happy About a Biden Presidency

Trump's trade policies and tough stance on China have been beneficial to Vietnam. But he's also been wildly inconsistent.
November 10, 2020, 8:48am
Vietnam
Books about Trump translated in Vietnamese on sale at a shop in Hanoi. Photo: Michael Tatarski

While governments around the world have congratulated Joe Biden on his victory in the U.S. presidential election last week, Vietnam's leaders have yet to even comment on the topic. 

The most recent tweet from Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, on Nov. 6, welcomed the appointment of New Zealand's new Minister of Foreign Affairs, while the Vietnamese government's official website had made no mention of the outcome as of Tuesday afternoon.

Independent media is restricted in the one-party state, and it is virtually impossible to ring up senior officials. On Thursday, the foreign affairs ministry's weekly press conference will offer the first chance for reporters in Hanoi to ask for a reaction.

"I think they are being a bit careful because the result is not formal yet," Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS Yusok Ishak Institute, the Singapore-based think tank, told VICE News. "They are also looking at how other countries are reacting - in the region, Indonesia and Singapore have congratulated Biden on the victory, but others are waiting," he added, referring to China's refusal to do the same

U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has yet to concede the election, leaving the result to be called by news organizations while lawsuits make their way through the legal system. U.S. Attorney General William Barr has given prosecutors authority to investigate claims of voter fraud, though no actual evidence of such activity has been uncovered. 

Given the last four years, it is difficult to know if there is any clear preference among Vietnam's top party officials. Trump's policies, especially on trade, have been hugely beneficial for Vietnam at times, but detrimental at others.

"Trump has been a source of frustration to the Vietnamese in that his policies have been so bipolar," said Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington D.C. who specializes in Southeast Asia. "He's so transactional, and they understand transactional, but he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership [trade deal], and no country did more to get into the TPP than Vietnam, so they were angry." 

Nguyen Khac Giang, a PhD candidate at New Zealand's Victoria University who studies Vietnam, noted that Biden's expected focus on multilateralism could see the U.S. attempt to join the new version of the massive trade deal, which has the laborious title of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

The CPTPP includes 11 countries around the Pacific Rim that make up roughly 13 percent of global GDP, and the U.S. rejoining the table would please the Vietnamese government. 

The Trump administration's aggressive sanctions on Chinese exports to the U.S. have helped spur huge shifts in manufacturing production to Vietnam, boosting an already fast-growing economy that has weathered the COVID-19 pandemic relatively well and is expected to resume rapid expansion next year.

Vietnam was chosen as the high-profile location of the second Trump summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un last year. The summit may have achieved little, but it was a sign of Washington's trusted ties with its hosts in Hanoi.

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This picture from North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) taken on Feb. 28, 2019 and released on March 1, 2019 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump (R) walking together at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi. Photo. KCNA VIA KNS / AFP

The Vietnamese also appreciated the harder line in the hotly contested territory of the South China Sea, with increased freedom of navigation operations, Abuza said. He noted that the U.S. Navy conducted less than five of these missions during former President Barack Obama's two terms, while over 20 have occurred under Trump.

"But they think things are going really with the recent visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and then right after that the U.S. Trade Representative begins investigating Vietnam for alleged currency manipulation," he said.

The Vietnamese government has denied that its monetary policies favor exports. 

It remains to be seen whether this investigation will result in damaging sanctions, but last week the U.S. Department of Commerce placed punitive tariffs on car and truck tires exported from Vietnam to the U.S. This follows a June 2019 comment from President Trump that Vietnam is "the single worst abuser of everybody" when it comes to trade and currency policies.

Tough and Rich

While this policy whiplash may be frustrating for government officials, it still doesn't explain why the general public in Vietnam is broadly supportive of Trump.

An online survey conducted by one of Vietnam's largest news outlets at the start of this month found that out of nearly 60,000 respondents, 79 percent favored Trump over Biden in the election.

This sentiment is often borne out in conversation, with many Vietnamese expressing gratitude for Trump's perceived toughness on China, as well as his image as a self-made billionaire, something that people respect, even if the exact size of his wealth is unclear

Trump's many books, translated into Vietnamese, can be found at almost any bookstore in major cities.

It is worth noting that support for Trump, and the U.S. more broadly, has little to do with the traditional American partisan divide. When then-President Obama visited Ho Chi Minh City in may of 2016, tens of thousands of people lined the streets to wave at his motorcade, while his visit to a Hanoi bún chả restaurant with the late Anthony Bourdan is memorialized to this day.

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In this photograph taken on March 20, 2018, a waitress carries dishes to customers next to the glass-encased table where former US President Barack Obama sat at for a meal with chef Anthony Bourdain at Bun Cha Huong Lien restaurant, now dubbed "bun cha Obama", in Hanoi's old quarter. Photo: Nhac NGUYEN / AFP

The narrative of support for the current president is also true across the Pacific, where large numbers of Vietnamese-Americans have a deep-seated affinity for Trump. The 2020 Asian American Voter Survey sampled 1,569 registered voters and found that only Vietnamese respondents showed higher support for Trump over Biden out of six ethnicities, though some argue the numbers don't reflect generational divides.

In perhaps the most amusing illustration of this popularity, in September a Vietnamese-American choir released a music video, translated into English as "Vote for President Donald Trump," featuring middle-aged women in American flag áo dài and men wearing Trump's excessively long red tie.

Prior to the election, Vietnamese-Americans were seen in photos and videos wearing MAGA hats waving the American flag and, often, the flag of the former country of South Vietnam, signifying their hatred of communism and the current rulers of the government, which many fled following the Vietnam War.

Reflecting this trend, an Oct. 15 post on Joe Biden's official Instagram account prominently featured the South Vietnam flag - three horizontal red stripes on a yellow background - an emblem that cannot be shown in public in Vietnam, but a move clearly aimed at older Vietnamese-Americans.

Here in Vietnam, domestic state-owned outlets have been covering the election results extensively,  publishing articles with quotes from Vietnamese-American Trump supporters containing the same baseless allegations of election fraud and media manipulation that the president has been sharing.  

Vietnam-U.S. Ties to Remain Strong

But analysts agree that no matter who occupies the White House, the relationship between Vietnam and the U.S. will stay robust as the rivalry between Washington and Beijing simmers, though with some potential points of contention

"I think you will see a renewed commitment to human rights, democracy promotion, rule of law and freedom of the press [with Biden]," Abuza said. "That was completely absent under Trump, and he made no bones about it, so I think Vietnam will be under greater scrutiny, but they've weathered that before."

"Ultimately I'm sure any U.S. president would prove to be fairly popular in Vietnam," he added. "And they need support on the Mekong, they need the U.S. in the Paris Accords because Vietnam is so vulnerable to climate change."

A recent Facebook post from a Vietnamese Trump supporter is representative of the China-centric lens through which many here view the election and its aftermath.

"I like Trump. He is decisive, straightforward, and funny sometimes…Without Trump, no one can control China… China will control all and [the] U.S. will be controlled by China soon."