September 15, 2017

When everybody wants China’s investment

September 15, 2017
Audience members asked Mr. Hiebert about his perspectives regarding US-Vietnam relations, Chinese activity, and what certain decisions made by the US leadership will do to affect policy outcomes in Southeast Asia.

Mr. Murray Hiebert, Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC, USA).

Questions and answers have been consolidated for the purpose of clarity

On U.S.-Vietnam Relations…

How will the cuts from the State Department affect commitments to Southeast Asia?

We do not know about the cuts yet. There is this unit that is trying to figure out cuts. They’re making many of the cuts without really consulting. They’ll finish their report and it will go to the Secretary [of State Rex Tillerson]. I will be stunned if East Asia will be hit harder than other areas around the world.

How will the events in the South China Sea end? How should the US respond to China’s actions?

I get this question a lot in Vietnam. If you had been an advisor, what would you recommend the US do? What China did, no single thing was worth going to war over. It’s really tough.

Also, there are other world issues. Some negative and some positive. North Korea, Afghanistan, and the Paris Agreement, which China and the US worked on together.

The US and China are economic partners, traders, and investors. It has to balance out its different interests and their benefits. There are really not terribly, easy answers.

On China…

What is ASEAN compelled to do in the sea tensions? How does Chinese foreign direct investment in other ASEAN countries affect their willingness to do anything at all?

ASEAN as a whole isn’t as buzzed up about the sea tensions as certain members are. It’s understandable that not everybody cares as much.

Everybody wants China’s investment, they are very reluctant to criticize because China does punish you. It’s not terribly easy to stand up to China.

How can Vietnam deal with China playing hardball?

Yes, Vietnam is the last man standing on the battlefield. They have been abandoned by the Philippines. Vietnamese feel some partnerships, but they are not very strong. So, there’s Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore on the South China Sea. They don’t say much publicly.

In fact, a Malaysian foreign minister was very critical of the South China Sea in private meeting. Then later he got a text from someone higher up saying don’t criticize China.

I think you have to look for allies where you can find them: The European Union, the United States, Japan, Australia, G-20. I know Japan is very strong in supporting Vietnam. They know it could happen in the east China sea.

On leadership…

I’m confused about where the US stands on issues here. Who will be having private influence on the foreign strategy for this administration?

Well, I mean, the US is confused, too. Sometimes, we wake up and read some tweets and we don’t know what has happened to us.

For the influence, I don’t know how long it will take for leadership to have an influence in this region. When people get nominated that would certainly help. Right now, Vietnam is treated quite well in the scheme of things. They have to fill some jobs, and some people have to be empowered. I think you have to be good with strategic ambiguity. If Vietnam stays engaged as it does now, as long as it works to solve some trade differences by November.

Daniel Kritenbrink has been nominated as the new US Ambassador to Vietnam. Thoughts?

I’ve watched what ambassadors build on in Vietnam. Every ambassador builds on a little more. Kritenbrink’s background is that he is a China guy. He was in Beijing before he joined the National Security Council of Asia. He was very curious and engaging. He learned a lot about Southeast Asia at that time. Like Ted, he is friendly, very easy to get along with. He likes to engage people and thinks people are important. I think the Vietnamese will like him. Dan is a warm person. He’ll get along well. I know he’ll get along well with the officials. He also knows a lot about China, maybe he’ll have some tips there.