Can Vietnam Get What it Wants Without Reform?

The visit by Nguyen Phu Trong, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, to the White House on July 7 might very well signal another new chapter in the US–Vietnam relations. It is certainly the first time a ranking party official has set foot on US soil. However, more than just establishing a first, Trong’s visit comes as US–Vietnam relations celebrate 20 years since diplomatic relations were normalized after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

As noted by Carl Thayer, writing in The Diplomat, traditionally heads of state or government are received by the US president in the Oval Office. Given that no equal exists in the US, President Obama’s reception demonstrated the US’s recognition of the importance of the party and the General Secretary in Vietnamese politics.

Indeed, the meeting between Obama and Trong was not unlike a meeting between two national leaders. Although just short of a strategic partnership, the US and Vietnam appear to be paving way for such an eventuality. While much of the focus was on strengthening bilateral relations and addressing the rise of China, human rights was said to have been discussed “candidly.”

However, not everyone has been receptive to Trong’s visit. John Sifton at Human Rights Watch was quick to criticize the meeting as sending the wrong message to Vietnam. As a repeat offender of human rights, and having demonstrated little in the way of improvement, Trong’s warm reception begs the question of whether the US can truly effect change in Vietnam. At present, at least 135 political prisoners remain imprisoned by the Vietnamese government, and no promise has been made to release any leading into or after the meeting.

Nevertheless, developments in the last few years have advanced US–Vietnam relations. Forced to reckon with an increasingly assertive China, Vietnam has perhaps begun to look to the US as more than a simple counterbalance to its neighbor. It has not yet been 50 years since North Vietnam and the US were engaged in a bloody and bitter war; but, as history has repeatedly has demonstrated, the most immediate threat to Vietnam has been China. The wars against France and the US may thus be considered to be little more than anomalous blips between another Sino–Vietnamese confrontation.

Just as the US exploited the Sino–Soviet split during the Cold War to engage China, so too does the US appear to be taking advantage of the growing rift between Vietnam and China. Coupled with Washington’s pivot to Asia-Pacific, improving relations with Hanoi would be a positive step in reaffirming America’s presence in the region.

In 2013, the two nations’ Presidents signed the US–Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership. In 2014, the US took the first steps to partially lift its arms embargo against Vietnam and facilitated the latter’s entry into the negotiations of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). Finally, this year and most recently, the two nations signed a Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations, which was further reaffirmed by President Obama and Mr. Trong.

Such developments between the US and Vietnam have not escaped noticed in Beijing. China promptly deployed their vice premier, Zhang Gaoli, to meet with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Thursday in response to Trong’s visit to the US. Zhang’s mission will undoubtedly be to attempt to restore relations between the two neighbors and to remind Vietnam of China’s importance.

Despite these positive steps, obstacles continue to prevent the US and Vietnam from becoming close partners on the international stage. Human rights and suppression of political dissidents continue to plague Vietnam and have remained a constant concern for the US. A complete lifting of the arms embargo has yet to occur, and any transfer of lethal equipment would be restricted for maritime purposes only and evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

At the same time, Hanoi continues to maintain its “three no’s” policy—no military alliance, no foreign military base on Vietnamese soil, and no alliance with any country in conflict with another. However, should relations between Vietnam and China further deteriorate, strained already by China’s incursion into contested waters last summer with the oil rig HD-981 (and once again moving back into contested waters this June), one could expect the communist party leadership to reverse course.

Circumstance has made partners of the United States and Vietnam, but a lasting partnership must be established on something more than passing interests. China’s rise and the US’s pivot to Asia-Pacific has proved sufficient in helping the US and Vietnam break new ground, but it would require something more durable to keep this partnership together. Interests can wane, but shared values will endure. Differences in political ideology may be overlooked in the short-term, but the absence of a common vision can prove detrimental to long-term growth.

Change, however, is rarely quick. Yet, one could hope that the US’ continued engagement with Vietnam can encourage much needed reform. It has been 20 years since the US normalized relations with Vietnam, and much has since happened. But the question remains how much of Vietnam’s delaying tactics on reform will the US tolerate until the latter is simply trading in human rights for political expedience.

Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.