WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump welcomed Vietnam’s prime minister to the White House Wednesday for talks focusing on the American trade deficit, while the Southeast Asian country is still shaken by Trump’s withdrawal from a regional commerce pact.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is the first leader to visit the Trump White House from Southeast Asia, where the U.S. vies with China for influence. Billions of dollars in U.S.-Vietnamese business deals are expected to be signed during his visit.
The Oval Office meeting could be overshadowed by indications Trump will pull the United States out of a global climate agreement that commits nations to reducing carbon emissions. The World Bank has ranked Vietnam, whose population mostly lives in coastal areas and low-lying deltas, as one of five countries most likely to be affected by climate change.
Responding briefly to questions from reporters at the start of Wednesday’s meeting, Trump said he would decide on the Paris accord “very soon.”
The U.S. president is due to travel to Vietnam to attend an Asia-Pacific economic summit in November. He praised Phuc for doing a “spectacular job” in Vietnam.
“We have a major trade deficit with Vietnam, which will hopefully balance out in a short period of time. We expect to be able to do that,” Trump said as formal talks began. He added that Vietnam had made a “very large order” worth billions of dollars that would create jobs for the U.S., but gave no details.
Trump said they would also discuss North Korea, whose nuclear weapons program is of growing concern to Washington.
Phuc said U.S.-Vietnam relations have “undergone significant upheaval but today we have been able to become comprehensive partners.” He said he has been impressed by Trump’s friendliness and openness and was confident bilateral cooperation would be enhanced.
The U.S. and Vietnam normalized ties in 1995, two decades after the Vietnam War’s end. Under President Barack Obama, diplomatic and security ties blossomed, as Vietnam sought ways to counter China’s island-building and vast claims to the disputed South China Sea.
But the relationship is now on uncertain ground.
Vietnam would have been a prime beneficiary of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement negotiated under Obama. Within days of taking office, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the trade deal, saying it would hurt American workers. While Vietnam has actively courted the new administration, the two sides must navigate Trump’s concern over the U.S. trade deficit with Vietnam, America’s sixth-largest.
At a gala dinner for Phuc hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce late Tuesday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said the annual trade deficit increased over the last decade to nearly $32 billion, from $7 billion, presenting “new challenges” for the relationship.
Phuc may have to demonstrate the benefits of trade. He told the chamber that deals for U.S. goods and services worth $15 billion to $17 billion would be signed during his visit. He gave no details. GE Power Chief Executive Officer Steve Bolze said the company would sign $6 billion in agreements.
During a visit to Vietnam last year, Obama lifted restrictions on U.S. arms sales to the communist-governed nation. That hasn’t led to purchases by Vietnam, although the U.S. recently delivered six coastal patrol boats to Vietnam’s coast guard in a sign of deepening security cooperation. Vietnam has also just received a Hamilton-class cutter decommissioned from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Last week, the U.S. Navy conducted its first freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea since Trump took office, sailing close to a disputed island claimed by China. The operation would have been welcomed by Vietnam, one of several governments challenging China’s sweeping sovereignty claims.