Two Steps Forward for Vietnam, Two Steps Back

Michael Michalak, the new US ambassador to Vietnam, has arrived with a pledge to push for improved human rights and enhanced economic relations. Michalak, a 32-year Foreign Service veteran, takes over from Ambassador Michael Marine amid tensions over the treatment of political dissenters.

During his three years in Hanoi, Marine saw growing bilateral trade relations that were fully normalized last year, weeks before Vietnam joined the World Trade Organisation in January. However, as he left, the US envoy said the communist country's poor human rights record was his biggest disappointment.

Despite dissatisfaction with the human rights situation in Vietnam, however, the strategic and economic logic of ties between the two countries should ensure that bilateral relations will be expanded. As a recent report by the Washington -based Henry L. Stimson Center noted, the Bush administration’s policy in Southeast Asia is based on the assumption that the region will “remain an area of peace, stability, economic growth, relatively free and open trade and comparatively low priority to US global interests.”

Vietnam, currently the region’s fastest-growing economy, fits into this strategic calculus. At present, the US is Vietnam’s biggest export market, while bilateral trade is expected to reach US$15 billion in 2010. From a long-term view, the relations between the two former enemies have grown dramatically since normalization in 1995. As he pushed the case for normalized trade relations last June, the then Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Eric John affirmed that the policy priorities with Vietnam “in the coming months and years” would be furthering the engagement across a range of areas, including educational exchanges and even military relationship.

Human rights concern

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the American government will continue to press the Vietnamese for tangible progress on religious and political freedoms – the major impediment to the bilateral relationship. This year’s spate of arrests of political activists has led to growing pressure for the Bush administration to take a tougher line against Hanoi on human rights.

For instance, the US House of Representatives is expected to consider legislation soon would ban US non-humanitarian assistance to the Vietnamese government. Although the Senate has in the past rejected this kind of legislation, its reintroduction, and the approval by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in July, reflects a renewed concern that the Vietnamese government has tried to reverse the progress of political openness.

These latest developments are dismaying in light of improving relations over the last 12 months.

Last year, in the run-up to the Party Congress, domestic media were given free rein to discuss sensitive issues, including democracy. There was the emergence of a nascent democracy movement, the so-called Bloc 8406, which is named for the date it was launched, on April 8. All gave the impression that political controls were loosening. In the week before the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi last November, Vietnam was rewarded by being removed from the US list of religious persecutors. And when in Hanoi for APEC, President Bush praised Vietnam as a country “that's taking its rightful place as a strong and vibrant nation.”

And yet, right after Hanoi saw the APEC guests off, the police machinery swung into action. Human Rights Watch called the action “one of the worst crackdowns on peaceful dissidents in 20 years.” US Rep. Earl Blumenauer resigned as chairman of the U.S.-Vietnam Caucus in Congress to protest the convictions of activists, saying “I have been a consistent friend to Vietnam, but I cannot compromise my support for human rights.”

In a show of disapproval, Bush raised human rights with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nguyen Minh Triet, during talks at the White House in June. “In order for relations to grow deeper, it's important for our friends to have a strong commitment to human rights and freedom and democracy,” the US president said.

As he appeared at the Senate confirmation hearing, Ambassador Michael Michalak remarked, “Human rights and the current performance of the government of Vietnam certainly has cause for concern.”

Michalak certainly had received advice from his predecessor, Marine, who has often criticized Vietnam’s lack of political reform. In April, as the crackdown intensified, the US diplomat publicly said Vietnam “must move to give its citizens greater space to express ideas, organize themselves to address issues of concern and participate in the pursuit of real accountability, including, ultimately, the right to select their leaders and representatives.”

In his final media briefing in Hanoi, Marine said, “Perhaps my biggest disappointment here is that we've not been able to expand the space for political dialogue in Vietnam."

A few days before he went to Vietnam, Michalak outlined his priorities in an interview with the Vietnamese-language service of the BBC:

“I intend to work very hard on promoting an expansion of human rights within Vietnam and improving the economic relationship between the US and Vietnam and improving economic development as a whole. I think these are at the core of our relationship, along with the ultimate settlement of finding the remains of those who were lost during the war,” he said.

As if understanding that change in Vietnam won’t be overnight, the new American ambassador said that during his term he would try to “double the number of students coming to the United States from Vietnam.” Given Vietnam’s need for foreign trained personnel, the country would want to look to the US for help.

In his trip to the US, Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet said “education is the strongest link in bringing our nations closer together." On the American side, educational and cultural exchange programs have long been a cornerstone of public diplomacy. Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright used to remark that in transitional countries, these programs helped educate “future leaders about the nuts and bolts of democratic institutions.” The hope is that exchange programs will encourage students to be more accepting of pluralism.

Of course, for the current rulers of Vietnam, overseas study may result in “contaminated” values. They need bright minds to bolster the country’s economic strength, but fear any attempts to promote Western-style democracy. This fear means that the strategic role of exchanges, as envisaged by the United States, won’t necessarily be fulfilled in Vietnam any time soon.