Peace and Prosperity in the Pacific

Peace and prosperity in the Pacific hinge on the relationship triangle that is the United States, China, and Southeast Asian nations. Although China has become the economic engine of the region, the success and growth of the regional economy will be dependent on its stability, not necessarily in terms of economics but security as well.

Although the Scarborough Shoal standoff between China and the Philippines has been defused, the greater South China Sea disputes continue to dominate the region. India briefly stepped into the arena, announcing its intent to jointly explore resources off the coast of Vietnam in an area disputed by China, only to later withdraw. Despite this, India’s withdrawal did not dissuade Russia from joining Vietnam in a similar joint exploration of resources.

Cable-cutting, naval exercises and aggressive rhetoric over maritime and territorial claims paint the picture of a very volatile region. Yet, it is unthinkable that any nation in the region is eager for war, desiring instead for peace and prosperity.

The primary obstacle

Peace and prosperity cannot be achieved without resolving the maritime and territorial disputes. China has repeatedly claimed the disputes as a bilateral issue between it and the other claimant states, whereas claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam have been pushing for the matter to be resolved multilaterally, fearing that bilateral resolutions will unfairly benefit China.

Although the US has simply urged that freedom of navigation be respected, its support for the Philippines and Vietnam suggests that it is also in favor of resolving these disputes on a multilateral basis. And why should it not? A united front among claimant states would blunt China’s ability to leverage its impressive economy and sizeable military against its much smaller neighbors. Demands for the international community to intervene in the South China Sea disputes would reduce China’s influence, demands that have partly succeeded in attracting the attention of the European Union.

Unfortunately, overlapping claims between claimant states make resolving the disputes difficult. A united front against China would only go so far until the core issue of sovereignty must be addressed, at which point said “front” will dissolve as countries seek to claim what they believe to be theirs.

Despite what might appear to be an impossible situation, there exists a potential solution. A joint resource development agreement between claimant states under international oversight could allow for all parties to share in the exploration of resources. However, such an initiative would require claimant states to surrender sovereignty over their claims. This is not an easy solution, but it is a solution that may work if all parties are willing and committed to resolving the disputes peacefully.

More than just talking

Asean has the unfortunate reputation for talking too much and doing too little. It is easy to offer grand suggestions when there is little imperative or demand to honor said suggestions. The future Asean therefore rests on its ability to contribute real change, rather than serve as an excuse for government officials to leave their respective capital behind for a change of scenery. If it is to remain relevant, Asean must become a body of action. It should endeavor to be more than an occasion for nations to air their grievances.

Asean, being nothing more than an international forum, has no effective means of enforcing its members to commit to proposals. An organization without an identifiable leader will simply fracture. I do not refer to the changing leadership of Asean, but a country within Asean that has the strength to take the reins. Much as Germany and France are considered leaders within the EU, who are/is the leader(s) of Asean, if any?

Indonesia, the most populous and possessing the largest economy of all the states, lends its name to becoming a possible leader. As one of the founding members, Indonesia is well-respected and understood to become a potential leader in Southeast Asian affairs in the future, having hosted numerous international forums on its soil in the past.

Lest Indonesia act alone, it can also rely on the support of some Asean members. Singapore, despite its size, with its robust economy and high quality of life, can more than play a supporting role. Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam, would perhaps also like to assume some sort of leadership role in an Indonesia-led alliance.

For countries such as Vietnam, however, to become a leader it must first change.

In becoming a leader

It is not enough to claim economic improvements as reason for leadership. Since enacting free-market reforms in the mid-1980s, Vietnam has emerged from a backwater nation mired in poverty to become one in the midst of modernization. Although today it suffers from slowed economic growth and income inequality, Vietnam can rightfully count itself as being one the more promising countries to emerge in the 1990s and first decade of the new millennium. All of this, however, omits the very real need for political reform.

While Hanoi has ignored much of the Communist handbook in operating its economy, Vietnam remains under the authoritative rule of the Communist Party. This is not to say that the people are not happy; but their happiness, as it relates to personal freedom, is severely limited. Voicing one’s opposition to the government remains an offense against the state.

Leaders are looked upon as someone or something to imitate. What reason is there to imitate a nation whose government continues to suppress its people, whose human rights record leaves much to be desired?

If Vietnam is to become a leader in the new Asean, it must first change. Change is not paying lip service to new freedoms, but—and much like the change required of Asean itself —concrete action. Of course, it is not expected that political reform will occur overnight or come easy; therefore a roadmap to democracy must be established.

Radical change has a destabilizing effect that may prove counterproductive to the development and recovery of a nation. We need only look to Egypt, which, despite having elected their new president, runs the risk of suffering another military coup. Power struggles in the absence of any authority should be avoided at all cost in the democratization of Vietnam.

It is perhaps not a popular opinion to suggest that the Communist Party preside (ideally with international oversight in some manner) over the democratization of the country; however, it is important that law and order be maintained during the transition. Moreover, it is necessary that what follows after political reform does not give way to acts of retribution against the previous regime. Whatever the crimes perpetrated by some Communist Party members, Vietnam must look to the future and not the past.

To borrow from post-apartheid South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission could bring to light past offenses. Such a commission may not heal all wounds, but it could serve to acknowledge what has happened and help the nation move forward in its development.

What will happen during the transition and beyond is up to speculation. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful that a new Vietnam can properly take advantage of the promise its citizens hold. A free and democratic society would embrace diversity, open the door for social change, and provide the opportunity for new, unconventional ideas to be considered.

Change at the top and bottom

Ultimately, however, the fate of Vietnam is in the hands of its citizens. Change begins when there is demand for change, and the people must first demand it. Although government operates in a top-down manner, the power of government is handed from the bottom up. The people elect their representatives, who in turn are provided the mandate to legislate and govern on their behalf.

Responsibility, therefore, rests on the shoulders of the people. In a democratic society, the government represents the people’s ability or inability to act. If the people wish for change, they must demand and act for change. The Vietnamese people cannot expect to remain separate from any change in government. If there should be change in Vietnam, it will first begin at the top—the highest level of government.

However, if the people remain absent during this phase, very little change will trickle down to where change is needed most: the people. Democratization will require participation from both the government and the people to succeed. Democracy is not guaranteed. It is not given. It must be earned by those who would benefit most from it—the citizens of that nation.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a Vietnamese Canadian lawyer in Ottawa, focusing on various areas of law. He researches on International Relations and International Law.)

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