Opinion: Vietnam's Ambitions

Vietnam's ambitions were on display at the 12th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore when Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam delivered his keynote address.

Titled "Building Strategic Trust for Peace, Cooperation and Prosperity in the Asia-Pacific Region," the address (which can be read online at the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Shangri-La Dialogue website) wastes little time in establishing the premise of this year's forum and Vietnam's foreign defense policy. At the heart of all of this, and reiterated time and again by Prime Minister Dung, is the necessity of "building trust".

To impress upon the importance of trust, the prime minister recitee a Vietnamese saying, "If trust is lost, all is lost." It is a rather appropriate warning when considering the maritime and territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, in addition to concerns such as drug and human trafficking, terrorism, cyber security, and piracy, among others. International problems require international solutions built on trust and cooperation.

In delivering his keynote address, Dung hinted at what lay ahead for Vietnam, not only on matters of regional security but also global affairs, including participating in UN peacekeeping operations. Much is made about the importance for the respect of international law, regional cooperation, and building trust; but if Vietnam intends to succeed in its endeavors, it must first give reason to other states to trust Vietnam.

Not taking sides, but not necessarily

More than once, Dung referenced to activities undertaken in the region by "big states." When the prime minister's statements are taken into context of "groundless claims, and actions that run counter to international law" in the region, one can assume with a fair degree of certainty that he is talking about China. It is a not-so-subtle shot at the giant of Asia-Pacific and Vietnam's neighbor, with whom a delicate relationship is shared. Vietnam cannot antagonize China, but it cannot pass up an opportunity to voice its displeasure, either.

Further threading the needle, the Vietnamese prime minister announced his country's defense policy as self-defense only, refusing to take part in a regional chess match, falling just short of declaring neutrality. As much as Vietnam's foreign policy is one of non-intervention (at least in matters beyond territorial and maritime disputes), it is also one of self-preservation, as with any other state; and Vietnam's leaders understand as much.

The importance of the United States to Asia-Pacific security is not lost on the prime minister, as he openly welcomes "extra-regional powers" to the region. True to the concept of cooperation and trust, it will ultimately be up to the US and China to cooperate and compete in such a way so as not to jeopardize the peace and security of the region. Vietnam might not advocate taking sides, but it would be disingenuous to believe Vietnam (and many countries involved in maritime and territorial disputes with China) is not rooting for the US to return to the Asia-Pacific and balance against China's regional ambitions.

In the same vein, international forums such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), and ASEAN Defense Minister's Meetings Plus (ADMM+), including the Shangri-La Dialogue, are all touted by the prime minister as "opportunities to foster multilateral security cooperation" in what one can take as a demand for greater international involvement in Asian-Pacific affairs, contrary to China's wishes.

Two Vietnams, one reality

If Vietnam intends to play a larger role on the global stage, it must first address the discrepancies between those values it intends to promote and those values it enacts at home. Before a state can engage in the process of building trust with one another, it must first build trust with its people at home. If Vietnam seeks to play an active role within the UN, it must first give other states reason to trust its judgment. Put simply, there is much work ahead.

There are five communist one-party states remaining in the world - Cuba, China, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam, four of which are located in te Asia-Pacific. Although economic liberalization policies have been implemented in some, moving towards a free market and are no longer purely communist in an ideological sense, these countries are still far from the UN ideal.

Democracy (or rather lack thereof), human rights, and respect for the rule of law are all problems Vietnam currently faces. To borrow the words of the prime minister in his address, he must "find solutions to any problem, even the most sensitive and difficult" - and those problems listed are every bit as sensitive and difficult for the Communist Party. Vietnam's credibility as an active participant on the world stage is brought into question when Prime Minister Dung suggests that Vietnam will engage in peacekeeping operations.

If Vietnamese soldiers intend to wear the blue helmet in conflict zones, they must embody those values they intend to advocate, which can be difficult to do when political activists at home are detained and imprisoned for criticizing the government. Not unlike Burma, which Prime Minister Dung holds as an example of successful trust building in his address, Vietnam will have to reform if it intends to move forward and farther in the world.

Managing expectations

There is a future for Vietnam as an active participant in the regional security of Southeast Asia. Vietnam is the second largest country in Southeast Asia behind Indonesia, and its economy, should the country find its footing again, has the potential of again being one the most dynamic, not unlike those early years of the new millennium. As a country and a member of ASEAN, Vietnam can be and do many great things, but it must first undergo great changes.

Dung may have a vision for Vietnam, but just how far he can take his country will be up to himself and the people who lead it. How far the Communist Party is willing to go with regards to political and democratic reform will ultimately determine the extent of Vietnam's influence abroad.

But before Vietnam can solve problems beyond their borders, they must first those problems within it. Before Vietnam's leaders can ask the international community to trust Vietnam, they must first put their trust in the Vietnamese people.

(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.)