Building a New American Legacy in Vietnam

The meeting between Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang and US President Barack Obama at the White House went about as well as one could expect. As was planned beforehand, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and human rights were brought up. Despite differences, the United States and Vietnam intend to see this relationship grow, conditional, of course, on certain improvements.

It is plain enough that their brief meeting would not result in concrete developments, save perhaps for President Obama's resolve to visit Vietnam some time before the end of his term. The meeting did provide for the two heads of state to show, if only symbolically, that the former foes are ready to take the next step.

The question, however, is whether this visit will lead to bigger and better things.

The follow up

What follows from this meeting remains to be seen. However, further diplomatic and political engagement appear desirable on both sides. Dialogue between nations to bridge differences, particularly with respect to democracy and human rights, will certainly prove most difficult, but it is a challenge worth undertaking. More than just strategic objectives and economic benefits, the US must build a new legacy in Vietnam.

Eighteen years after reestablishing ties with Vietnam in 1995, America's legacy in the country remains more or less the same: a foreign power against which Vietnam (or rather North Vietnam before 1975) was at war, with the added consequence of Agent Orange and its lasting side effects to this day.

Americans refer to the conflict as the Vietnam War, but Vietnamese call it the American War. The animosity may no longer be there, replaced instead with other immediate concerns; but try as one might to move on from the past, the past will never be forgotten.

Although both countries have grown closer since 1995, "closer" is relative given that relations between the two states were previously non-existent. The US continues to maintain an embargo over the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam until its human rights record sufficiently improves.

Unfortunately, US criticism on Vietnam's human rights record has, in the past, tended to fall on deaf ears in Hanoi. As a matter of cost-benefit, the US had little lose in demanding that Vietnam do more to improve its human rights, and Vietnam had little to lose in ignoring said demands.

As a matter of business, both countries were quite content with the status quo. The US appeared to regard Vietnam as another new market to explore, and Vietnam saw the US as a new investor in its burgeoning economy. For US leaders, it was important that Vietnam do more to improve its human rights record. However, Vietnam simply never mattered enough for successive American presidential administrations to expend diplomatic and political energy over the issue.

This is no longer the case. With the US undertaking a rebalancing strategy in Asia-Pacific, or pivot as it has oftentimes been referred, Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, has come to factor in this new American strategy.

Conversely, just as this rebalancing strategy has come to increase the value of Vietnam to the US, China's increasing assertiveness has increased the value of the US to Vietnam.

Taking action

No longer are human rights a throwaway point, something for the US to bring up as a matter of principle. And no longer can Vietnam brush aside the US's concerns without care. Human rights reform has the potential of becoming an integral condition for US support.

Human rights are not bargaining chips but an essential requirement. With the balance of power falling in favor of the US, whose pivot to Asia-Pacific is not necessarily reliant on Vietnam's cooperation, the US can negotiate for reform, albeit delicately. Although the US must take care not to insult Vietnam's leaders, it must also make it clear to the Communist Party that the US is not a threat to Vietnam, that the US can some provide assistance to Vietnam but only if certain conditions are satisfied.

Whether it is President Obama or someone else, the US should endeavor to build a new legacy in Vietnam. A legacy built on democratic and human rights reform would not only achieve that which the US set out to accomplish during the Cold War, but also bring to the Vietnamese people a free and open society. Rather than bullets and bombs, the weapon of choice will be diplomacy and education.

The current crop of Vietnamese leaders must be made to understand that the world is changing rapidly, that its citizens are growing restless, and that the government's usual peace offerings will no longer suffice. In this, the US must be delicate in its actions for fear that a strong hand will cause Vietnam's leaders to retrench further. Nevertheless, there is a point to be made, and the US will do itself a disservice by treading too lightly.

Vietnamese youth of today are more than aware of their government's limitations. Additionally, they are aware that they have options. Foreign educational exchange programs from Vietnam to the US allow those fortunate Vietnamese students to learn how the "other side" lives, even with the advent of the Internet. It is one thing to see and read about an issue on the Internet; it is quite another to experience it firsthand.

It is a fact that Vietnam's human rights record is only getting worse. For this reason, the US must not use human rights as a bargaining chip but an essential requirement for American assistance of any sort. American leaders must keep in mind that there is such a thing as too high a price.

Vietnam's government is acutely aware that they can strike it alone in Southeast Asia, especially with regards to China, but they will not get very far. As such, America's pivot to Asia-Pacific is the relief Hanoi desires, but this relief has a price.

These next few years are a window of opportunity for the United States to bolster its image not only in Vietnam but throughout the region, affirming that it remains a beacon of freedom and democracy. For this to be true, however, the US must act accordingly. What greater legacy is there for the US in Vietnam than the establishment of a free and democratic country?

(Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)