What do Vietnamese think about the US and Obama’s Pacific trade pact?

By Minh Le, Thanh Nien News

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US President Barack Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, June 24, 2015. Photo: AFP US President Barack Obama in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, June 24, 2015. Photo: AFP
The Pew Research Center has released a new global survey of 40 countries, exploring how the world is seeing the US, in juxtaposition to China’s rising global image.
And it’s good news for America: its heyday is not over yet — at least in public minds.
The non-partisan think tank finds that ratings for the US remain mostly positive, with a global median of 69 percent having a favorable opinion of the country. President Obama is still popular in most of the surveyed countries. And while global publics are critical of its post-9/11 torture, the US military efforts against the Islamic State have enjoyed broad support.
It comes as no surprise that key allies of the US in Asia continue to see the country in a positive light.
But when Vietnam comes third in the region, only after the Philippines and South Korea, in terms of positive perceptions of the US, clearly something noteworthy is going on.
Vietnam was included in Pew's survey for the first time in 2014, so it is too early to identify an emerging trend. However, based on the figures available, America’s image has become more positive in Vietnam over the past year, with the favorability level rising from 76 percent to 78 percent.
A closer look at the demographics reveals that anti-American sentiments barely exist among young Vietnamese. A strikingly high 88 percent of 18-29 year-olds see the US positively, compared to 64 percent of those above 50 years old — a generation gap that could probably be attributed to various factors including exposure to American culture and recollections of the war.
Tellingly, the survey has found that Vietnamese show very strong support for the American plan to pivot to Asia, regarding both of the economic and military fulcrums.
In fact, Vietnam is the strongest supporter of the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade treaty among 12 nations that account for 40 percent of the global economy.
Just 2 percent of Vietnamese think that the controversial agreement, which Obama’s administration is likely to complete by year’s end, will be a bad thing for their country while 89 percent believe it will be good.
As for the defense pivot, only 13 percent of Vietnamese do not welcome increased US military resources in Asia, which is the lowest disapproval rate in the region.
Richard Wike, director of Global Attitudes Research at the Pew Research Center, suggests that the favorable views towards the US might be rooted in economic and territorial issues.
"I believe one major reason we see such high ratings for the US is that many Vietnamese believe closer relations with the US would be good for Vietnam,” he shares in an email.
"Huge majorities support TPP and want stronger economic ties with the US. Meanwhile, many Vietnamese are concerned about territorial disputes with China, and worried about the security threat from China, and this may be leading them to support a larger military role for the US in the region."
Wike does not rule out the possibility that many people in Vietnam, and others countries, are not familiar with all of the details of the proposed trade deal, but he still thinks the results from the research are valid.
“Our survey reveals that people are informed enough to offer an opinion, and based on what they know, people in TPP countries are generally supportive of it, and this is especially true in Vietnam."
According to the survey, while Asian publics in general value their economic relationships with China, in Vietnam, most consider strong economic ties with the US as more important than such ties with China.
This seems to be consistent with the economic reality. For years Vietnam has tried to break away from the shadow of China, mostly by seeking new trade opportunities to ease its dependence on the northern neighbor as both an import and export market.
And yet success stories are few and far between. Trade deficits with China still grow. Bilateral free-trade agreements, and even the entry to the World Trade Organization to some extent, have not given Vietnam any alternative markets big enough to replace that of China.
The UK bank HSBC has recently forecast that by 2030, China, with its fast-growing market, will overtake the US to become the largest buyer of Vietnamese goods.
The Vietnamese respondents of the new survey probably do not want that to happen. Unlike most of their peers in Asia, they do not give China much weight in the international balance of power. When asked about the future, 67 percent of them think that China will never replace the US as a global superpower.
Wishful thinking sometimes shades into delusion and denial. Let’s hope it is not the case here.

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