Women work at Maxport garment factory in Thai Binh province, Vietnam, June 13, 2019. REUTERS/Kham
Vietnam’s trade surplus with the US, its biggest export market, reached $39.5bn last year and is on track to set a new record this year © Reuters

Vietnam is pledging to import more US goods to placate Washington over its ballooning trade surplus and damp down perceptions that it is profiting unfairly from the US-China trade war, according to US and Vietnamese officials. 

In recent talks with US businesspeople and diplomats, Vietnamese officials have spoken of importing greater quantities of products including US coal, natural gas, meat, fruit and other agricultural products, the officials said. 

The talks come after US president Donald Trump, speaking to Fox News in June, called Vietnam “almost the single worst abuser of everybody” in regards to trade, raising fears in Hanoi that the country might be next on his administration’s list for punitive tariffs. 

Vietnam’s trade surplus with the US, its biggest export market, reached $39.5bn last year and is on track to set a new record this year. 

Energy imports, in particular, might make sense because Vietnam, one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, is set to face a power supply crunch as soon as 2021 and is scrambling to shore up new generating capacity and fuel supplies. 

Some US companies, shut out of China by higher tariffs, are looking to Vietnam and other south-east Asian countries as alternative markets. In recent weeks goods rarely seen in Vietnam normally, such as US cherries and apples, have appeared in shops. 

Pete Rickett, Nebraska’s Republican governor, visited Hanoi this week at the head of a trade delegation that included Tyson Foods, the meat producer, Reinke Manufacturing, which makes irrigation systems, and cow and calf farmers. 

“With China cutting off agricultural exports from the United States, regardless of how this turns out, what it says to us is that we need to diversify our markets,” Mr Ricketts told the FT. “We want to look to see if we can develop other places for our farmers and ranchers to sell their products around south-east Asia.” 

Vietnam has been one of the main beneficiaries of the trade war because it produces many of the same goods hit by new US tariffs targeting China. The country has benefited from new investment, but also come under critical US scrutiny because of exporters who trans-ship goods from China and label them as “Made in Vietnam” to avoid tariffs. Hanoi says it is cracking down on the practice. 

The US in July imposed duties worth more than 400 per cent on steel made in Vietnam. Washington is also pressing Hanoi on regulatory issues, including its controversial cyber security law. 

Notwithstanding the trade tensions, the US and Vietnam are drawing closer politically because of their shared opposition to China’s drive to establish dominance in the South China Sea. 

Mr Trump invited Nguyen Phu Trong, Vietnam’s president and communist party general secretary, to pay an official visit to the US when he was in Hanoi in February. Mr Trong, who is 75, suffered a health scare earlier this year, and Vietnam’s government has not yet confirmed a date for the proposed trip. 

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