Hanoi, the colorful and charming Vietnamese capital, will draw the world’s attention this week as U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands and poses for photographs with the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Surrounded by picturesque old French yellow villas, tree-lined boulevards, and lakes, both leaders couldn’t have picked better hosts or location for this meeting.
Vietnam is still ruled by a single Communist party and therefore has strong diplomatic ties with China, Cuba, and North Korea. Its economic opening and reforms have, however, increased its trade and investment links with South Korea, Japan, the U.S., Israel, and Russia. Facing increasing Chinese activities in disputed territories in the South China Sea, Vietnam has sought to strengthen its military cooperation with the U.S., Japan, Australia, Singapore, and Russia. Positioned between the demands of the developing world and the challenges of globalization, Vietnamese foreign policy continues to balance its alignment with the East and the West.
The hosts, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam, include some of the best diplomats in the world who have a history of signing peace agreements under the most improbable circumstances. Over a complicated history, Vietnam has resisted French imperialism, Chinese interventions, Japanese occupation, and U.S. bombings.
Walking around central Hanoi, one can witness the diplomatic struggles and triumphs of this country. Starting with the legend of Hoan Kiem lake, where it is said that a Vietnamese Emperor borrowed a turtle’s magical sword to defeat the Chinese in the 15th century. The train station is a combination of half-French and half-Soviet architecture, since the building’s centerpiece was destroyed by American bombs and rebuilt in the Soviet style. Today, the surviving old French villas are embassies, or residences of government officials, while others became cozy restaurants and stores packed with cell phones, wines, toys, or backpacks. But some of the most impressive buildings in the city are the Lotte Tower, a display of Korean investment, or the shining Nhat Tan Bridge built in cooperation with the Japanese across the Red River.
With tenacious guerilla warfare and skilled diplomats, the country negotiated its independence from France in 1954. With the help of grassroot movements at American universities and military assistance from the Soviets, the Vietnamese forced American presidents to withdraw from failed war efforts against Communism. A country split in two had a successful reunification almost immediately at the end of the long war. With the help of foreign aid, international assistance, and drastic economic reforms, Vietnam rose from one of the world’s poorest countries in the 1980’s to a middle income country in the early 21st century.
A fervent critic of trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Trump welcomed the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral trade relationship with Vietnam during his state visit in 2017. And and the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi highlighted that a result reached between Vietnamese and American presidents was the resolve to denuclearize North Korea, and addressing security challenges presented by that country.
President Trump even recognized the heavy political and economic weight of this country when he paid a state visit to Vietnam in 2017. That same year, Trump had a record of an awkward handshake with the British Prime Minister Theresa May, of refusing to shake hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, holding an extremely long handshake with the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and sexist comments about the French First Lady Brigitte Macron. President Trump’s visit to Vietnam, tellingly, was without any such embarrassing diplomatic faux pas.
It is not only tourists who admire how friendly and welcoming are the Vietnamese people. Through a persistent diplomacy and a well coordinated intelligence network, Vietnam won over the trust and friendship of its former foes: the U.S., South Korea, and Japan. Even after the end of the Cold War era, the country has kept warm relations with Russia, Cuba, North Korea, and East European countries. Geography, history, and a unique culture have taught the Vietnamese diplomats to balance its foreign policy, to promote peace-building efforts, and to keep strong and long-lasting friendships with almost every country around the world. Not surprisingly, Vietnam was mentioned as a possible meeting point since the very first time that President Trump and the North Korean Leader, Kim Jong Un, started planning their historical summit last summer. Today, Vietnamese diplomats will work behind the scenes and around the clock to make sure that two of the most famous world leaders are photographed with a friendly handshake and promising statements for global peace. Given Vietnam’s diplomatic history and expertise, it’s clear that there is no better country or team of diplomats that could guide North Korea’s and the United States’ talks to a positive resolution.
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