Time for the US to Get Tough on Vietnam

The United States’ engagement with Vietnam is, in large part, a failure. Hanoi continues to ply benefits from the US while offering little in return. It is time for the US to demand what kind of relationship Hanoi is seeking with Washington.

A clear distinction must first be made between Vietnam and the country’s government in Hanoi: the former comprises the Vietnamese people and the latter the Communist Party. To conflate the two as one and the same would be grossly erroneous.

It is, of course, far easier dealing in broad strokes. After all, Vietnam’s Communist government is the master of the house, and if the US intends to develop any form of strategic partnership with Vietnam, Washington can only turn to Hanoi. Unfortunately for the US, the Hanoi government is corrupt and a frequent violator of human rights.

None of this is to say the US has not dealt with corrupt and oppressive governments, such as Iran under the Shah, the regime of Saddam Hussein during the Iran–Iraq War, and Chile’s Pinochet government. However, these governments could at least be counted upon to act in the interest of the US. Vietnam’s Communists simply offer no such benefit.

This is not a recommendation of replacing one corrupt, autocratic regime with another one more attuned to American interests. Rather, in understanding and acknowledging the aspirations of the Vietnamese people, this is a recommendation that Washington cease playing Hanoi’s games and demands better, not only for the Vietnamese people but for Washington, as well.

Hanoi is not a partner of Beijing and possesses little leverage in China. Yet, with the US’s desired return to Asia-Pacific, Washington has begun to see Hanoi as not only an economic partner but a strategic regional one.

Renewed and improved relations between the two countries were affirmed by the announcement of a comprehensive partnership by Presidents Barack Obama and Truong Tan Sang in July 2013. The comprehensive partnership would see increased US investment in maritime assistance, the economy, the environment, education and human rights. Additionally, it can also be expected that the US will help pave the way for Vietnam to join the Asia-Pacific’s ambitious free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

However, for all the efforts the US has expended in assisting Vietnam, what has Washington gained in return? It was hoped that by helping Vietnam join the World Trade Organization, Hanoi would respect Washington’s request for more tolerance for free speech. Far from it, Hanoi has continued to crack down systematically on political dissidents and human rights activists.

Change, or else Washington holds all the cards, not Hanoi. Any notion (and any advantage that comes with such a notion) that Vietnam’s leaders can operate on an even playing field with Beijing overestimates Hanoi’s abilities. It should be understood in Washington that the current regime in Hanoi is an unnecessary obstacle to America’s foreign policy objectives in Asia-Pacific. To continue down the same path with Vietnam will achieve little of substance.

Despite America’s investment in Vietnam and securing a seat for the country in the WTO, to say nothing of the US’ expected support for Vietnam to join the TPP, Vietnam has demonstrated a degree of indifference to US concerns. Hanoi has enjoyed the benefits of having closer ties with Washington without offering anything in return. Such a relationship must end.

Once and for all, the US must demand Vietnam to clearly state its intentions. Of course, such a decision is not made in a vacuum, and Vietnam does not exist in a bubble. Quite literally, China looms in the background.

Although the US and Vietnam are uniformly concerned with China’s increasing assertiveness, Hanoi has been content by playing the two giants off one another. Unwilling to lean too far to the US and too far to China, Vietnam’s leaders have walked a fine line. Hanoi has chosen its battles carefully, never rushing to pick sides.

However, it is time for Vietnam to pick a side. Rather than waffling between the US and China, and thus pleasing no one, Hanoi should decide with whom it will join. Of course, Hanoi can elect to go it alone, but in such a case there would be no reason for the US to continue providing support to the regime, which could jeopardize the country’s entry to the TPP.

The fear is that such an ultimatum would frighten Vietnam’s Communist leaders into the hands of China. If Hanoi should seek comfort in Beijing, however, it is fair to say Vietnam’s leaders would be labelled traitors by their people, who are not so willing to join hands with China. Such a regime would likely have a short life expectancy.

The US has little to lose by throwing down such an ultimatum. Whatever economic or strategic advantage that would be lost if Vietnam turns its back on the US can be recuperated from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and/or Thailand. To be sure, the US would lose a neighbor of China’s; but then if Vietnam is unwilling to side with the US when asked, maintaining the status quo will have done nothing for the US.

If Vietnam should side with the US then the terms should be made clear to Hanoi: Vietnam must undergo political and democratic reform, and only once concrete efforts towards reform have been achieved will Washington resume relations with Hanoi. This is an aggressive position to assume, but it is time that Washington ceases feeding the illusion that Hanoi holds all the powers.

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.