Vietnam looks for Biden partnership after rocky Trump era

Officials are calculating whether and how Vietnam can restore stability in economic relations with President-elect Joe Biden. - AP

HANOI (Bloomberg) - Vietnam is looking to reset its volatile relationship with the US after finding itself caught in the middle of President Donald Trump's economic confrontation with China.

The South-east Asian nation was among the biggest beneficiaries of the US-China trade war as global companies added investments to diversify their supply chains. But its own swelling surpluses with the US saw it slapped with tariffs and accused of currency manipulation.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said Sunday (Nov 15) "no matter who wins, the US is still a friend."

But behind the scenes, officials are calculating whether and how Vietnam can restore stability in economic relations with President-elect Joe Biden.

Hanoi anticipates the Biden administration will accelerate the US' broader engagement with Vietnam and won't be as focused on currency and trade issues as Mr Trump officials, said Mr Le Dang Doanh, a Hanoi-based economist and former government adviser.

"The United States is the biggest export market for Vietnam," Mr Doanh said. And in order to keep employment steady "Vietnam needs to keep exports growing."

There's heightened concern among some US businesses that the Trump officials could slap additional tariffs on Vietnam after the US Department of Commerce this month imposed a preliminary anti-subsidy duty on Vietnamese car and truck tires, citing the nation's "undervalued currency" among the reasons.

The department will make a final determination on the tariff around March 16, near when the US International Trade Commission is scheduled to rule on the case.

US imports of passenger tires from Vietnam were valued near US$470 million (S$631.92 million) in 2019, it said. Its trade surplus with the US is on pace to break last year's record US$56 billion.

"For a country like Vietnam, where inflation rates have been higher than most of its trading partners, a weakening dong is understandable," said Mr Truong Van Phuoc, a senior member of the prime minister's economic advisory board.

The government kept inflation at about 4 per cent while the dong's decline was only around 1 per cent-2 per cent annually in the last few year, he said.

The US has criticised Vietnam for its current account surplus and for allegedly buying the greenback in order to weaken its own currency. Yet the current account surplus is mainly due to remittances, not exports, according to Mr Phuoc, who's also a former chairman of the National Financial Supervisory Commission and former head of the central bank's foreign exchange department.

Remittances are money sent to Vietnam from abroad and often used for businesses and not just family support.

"When investors bring dollars in, they need to convert them into dong to invest," he said, noting that it's not the central bank snapping up dollars.

Additional tariffs put in place by outgoing officials could handcuff the Biden administration, which would have to expend political capital to undo them. Congressional Democrats are also expected to push for a stronger focus on human rights issues in the country, said Mr Ernie Bower, Washington-based president and chief executive officer of BowerGroupAsia.

Prime Minister Phuc, in a meeting last month with Mr Adam Boehler, head of the US International Development Finance Corporation, reiterated that Vietnam doesn't use its currency for a competitive trade advantage. Doing so would "seriously hurt macroeconomic stability, people's and investors' confidence" while damaging the nation's economy, he said.

Vietnam will have a chance to make another high-profile pitch to the outgoing US administration when National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien visits Vietnam and the Philippines this week.

Foreign investors and multinationals are increasingly drawn to Vietnam, which is set to be a rare economy to eke out growth in 2020. Its Communist leaders have doubled down on free trade, inking a deal last year with the European Union and hosting the signing Sunday of the world's biggest trade deal, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

New US tariffs could hurt the export-dependent economy, particularly manufacturers, which are struggling amid the global pandemic, said Mr Doanh in Hanoi. Economic growth is forecast to slow to 2 per cent -3 per cent in 2020 from last year's 7.02 per cent.

"The Vietnamese have a reasonable hope that the Biden approach will be less ideological and sharp" while maintaining pressure on China, said Washington-based Mr Bower.

Meanwhile, thanks to aligned interests on regional politics, trade and investment,"there's a view among the Biden foreign policy team that Vietnam has become a very strategic-thinking country in Asia."

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