The remaining members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement should leave the door open for an American return, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told The Nikkei.

The 11 countries, which include Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, have reached a broad agreement on pursuing the trade pact without Washington's participation.

"The successful TPP 11 negotiations are an outcome of Japan's and Vietnam's devotion, as both parties played a difficult role as co-host countries," Phuc said. Tokyo and Hanoi must continue striving to ink a comprehensive and sophisticated pact, he added.

Phuc spoke with Nikkei Inc. President and CEO Naotoshi Okada in Hanoi, where he described Japan and Vietnam as being as close as brothers.

The Vietnamese leader revealed that he had received a letter from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prior to the TPP 11 agreement. Their close relationship seems to have played a key role in advancing the talks at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting held recently in Vietnam, where participating countries clashed strongly.

Phuc also said he initiated a meeting with Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan's minister in charge of the TPP. When Motegi asked why Phuc was so passionate about the trade deal, he explained that he was fully committed because of his close ties with Abe.

Regarding President Donald Trump pulling the U.S. out of the TPP under his "America first" policy, Phuc urged him to rejoin the framework in order to "secure other member states' and its own interests."

The Vietnamese leader said he spoke with Abe on how to persuade Trump to rejoin, showing a strong interest in bringing Washington back into the fold. Should the U.S. return to the TPP, the pact's members would account for 37.5% of the world's gross domestic product, 11.3% of the global population and 25.7% of total trade -- double to triple the figures for the TPP 11.

With Trump appearing unlikely to change his mind, Japan and Vietnam plan to enlist other countries in their efforts to persuade him on the TPP.

The U.S. looks to Vietnam's "growing middle class as a key market for American goods and services," Trump had said on his recent trip here, while also stressing the need for "fair and reciprocal trade."

Trump requested negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement with Vietnam, and he may ask the same of Tokyo before long, though he is not believed to have brought up the issue while he was in Japan on Nov. 5-7. Japan and Vietnam appear to share concerns about the tough terms the U.S. would likely demand in one-on-one negotiations.

The U.S. trade deficit with Japan stood at $68.9 billion in 2016, second only to its deficit with China. The figure for Vietnam totaled some $30 billion, the sixth largest. Such large deficits may give Trump ammunition to criticize the two countries as unfair trading partners.

In the interview, Phuc also discussed the reform of state-run enterprises, one of Vietnam's biggest economic concerns. "We want foreign companies to hold stakes in Vietnamese state-owned enterprises," he said, expressing a hope that foreign shareholders will also serve as strategic investors that provide management know-how.

"We want Japanese strategic investors to drive reforms at Vietnamese SOEs," he said.

Phuc also commended Abe for raising the topic of the South China Sea at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit on Nov. 13 in Manila. The Japanese leader's call for the rule of law in the disputed waters served as a rebuke of Beijing's expansionism.

By Atsushi Tomyiama - Nikkei Asian Review - November 23, 2017