Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said he intends to sign a deal for mostly high-tech imports from the United States worth U.S. $15-17 billion during his visit to Washington, ahead of a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump scheduled for Wednesday.
“On this occasion we have negotiated a more than U.S. $15 billion deal, mainly on imports from the United States,” Phuc told attendees at a dinner hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce late on Tuesday, suggesting the agreement could be valued at as much as U.S. $17 billion.
The prime minister, who is on a three-day visit to Washington, said he seeks to significantly increase annual trade between the two nations, “making the United States Vietnam’s largest trading partner.”
He urged the U.S. to import more goods such as textiles, seafood, fruit and timber from Vietnam in exchange for high-tech products including aircraft, electrical appliances, smartphones and pharmaceuticals, and pledged to improve conditions to draw additional U.S. investment in Vietnam.
Phuc’s comments followed concerns raised by U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer over a U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam that he said had risen to around U.S. $32 billion from U.S. $7 billion a decade ago. Lighthizer had urged Phuc to help rein in the imbalance.
Trade in goods between the U.S. and Vietnam reached U.S. $50 billion annually by the end of last year, and is projected to increase to U.S. $80 billion by 2020. Vietnam is currently Southeast Asia’s biggest exporter to the U.S.
Phuc, who became the first Southeast Asian leader to meet Trump on Wednesday, is believed to be seeking a bilateral trade pact to replace the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have reduced tariffs for Vietnamese exports to the United States but was scrapped by the U.S. leader.
Hanoi also seeks enhanced security cooperation with Washington in the face of expansive Chinese territorial claims and artificial island building in the South China Sea.
During the meeting on Wednesday, dozens of protesters holding flags of the former Republic of Vietnam gathered in front of the White House, demanding that Vietnam address human rights violations and calling for an end to one-party Communist rule in the country.
Ahead of the meeting, observers had urged Trump not to pursue new deals with Phuc at the expense of protecting human rights in Vietnam, where authorities regularly crack down on peaceful activists and citizen journalists.
New York-based Human Rights Watch Asia Advocacy Director John Sifton, in an editorial published by the Huffington Post, reminded Phuc that even if the Trump administration does not want to promote human rights during the meeting, “political realities demand that they must.”
“President Trump constitutionally leads on foreign policy, but Congress as always advises and consents, and can throw up roadblocks to closer U.S.-Vietnam ties if members don’t like what they see,” Sifton said.
“Congress must endorse trade agreements, and it can block arms deals.”
Sifton cited “broad bipartisan concern in Congress about Vietnam’s troubling human rights record” and noted that the Vietnamese-American community has effectively pressed members on such issues.
And in an opinion article to The Hill, Representative Chris Smith said that while it is important for the two leaders to discuss the U.S. trade deficit and Chinese claims in the South China Sea, “it would be a mistake to view U.S.-Vietnam relations only through the lenses of economics or security.”
“Vietnam's rising generation of future leaders would warmly welcome more robust efforts to promote individual rights and the U.S. has considerable leverage to bring about tangible reforms if improvements are linked to expanded U.S.-Vietnam relations,” Smith said.
“When U.S. interest wanes and Hanoi receives desired capital, investment and trade without conditions—it resumes its repressive ways.”
Following his meeting with Trump at the White House, Phuc was scheduled to speak at an event hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Translated by Emily Peyman. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.