Viet President's White House Sojourn

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang's visit to the White House on July 25 will be only the second time a Vietnamese leader has set foot in Washington since US–Vietnam relations were normalized in 1995, with the first visit occurring in 2007 by President Nguyen Minh Triet during the Bush Administration.

Although this visit has been touted as "historic" given the two countries' past history, its legacy remains to be seen. Far from the pomp and circumstance that would surround state visits, President Sang's working visit to the White House will be brief and relatively low key but undoubtedly heavy on what he hopes to achieve with the US.

The two presidents will have much to discuss, from strengthening economic and military ties to human rights in Vietnam. However, far from the expectation of groundbreaking agreements, what can be hoped is the beginning of a new chapter in US–Vietnam relations.

These changing times

Since the former President Triet's visit to the White House in 2007, much has changed in the US and Vietnam. Six years ago, Vietnam had just joined the World Trade Organization with the help of the US, and was still shining brightly among Southeast Asian economies; while in the US, the impending recession remained out of sight and out of mind.

Now, Vietnam is flirting dangerously with economic disaster after years of economic mismanagement and corruption, and the US is continuing its long and slow process of economic recovery.

The US has since turned its attention away from the Middle East to Asia-Pacific under its new rebalancing strategy, in part to open new markets on the road to economic recovery at home, and as such has begun cultivating relationships with regional partners. Not surprisingly, this pivot has been met with suspicion by Chinese officials in Beijing, who possess designs of their own for the region.

For Vietnam, the changing times have also brought about a new set of challenges, from public discontent at the government over its handling of the economy and its take on constitutional reform, to China's assertiveness in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia. Although relations between the US and Vietnam have been improving since 1995, Hanoi's concerns over China's intentions in the region have helped facilitate the process--or rather, it should have.

Obstacle to deepening relations

Despite the normalization of relations in 1995, the US has continued to maintain an embargo on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. Lifting of the embargo has been conditional on Vietnam's improvement on human rights, while Vietnam has continued to fall short. It is and has always been the issue of democracy and human rights that have served as an obstacle to deepening relations.

In a recent statement regarding the upcoming meeting between Presidents Obama and Sang, the Vietnamese Ambassador to the US, Nguyen Quoc Cuong, acknowledged differences between the two countries. Despite the differences, he hoped that both countries would engage in "equal and mutually-beneficial cooperation... and respect for each other's political institution."

Certainly, if Vietnam intends to maintain the status quo, they and the US can engage in mutually-beneficial cooperation. However, if Vietnam intends to strengthen its ties with the US and have Washington lift its embargo on the sale of weapons, Vietnam must do more to respect and acknowledge US concerns. At present, the US holds all the cards.

Although the US's pivot to Asia-Pacific would be greatly facilitated by closer ties with Vietnam, it is not contingent on active Vietnamese cooperation. The US is not without allies in Asia-Pacific, including Australia in the south, the Philippines, and Japan in the north; nor partnerships, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.

Strengthening relations with Vietnam would help open up its markets to US businesses; however, economic relations are fickle in that they last only as long as there is something to be gained. For a relationship to endure, it must be established on firmer ground: trust and common values.

One could certainly argue that the US risks jeopardizing future relations with Vietnam if it insists on human rights improvements. There is, of course, a place for realpolitik, but in this instance the US may do itself a disservice by overlooking the Vietnamese government's failures in favor of economic gains.

Vietnamese citizens desiring a freer and more open society are unlikely to look kindly upon those nations that have assisted their government in limiting their rights. To assume that the Communist Party will forever remain in power would be short-sighted.

If the US purports to be the leader of the free world, it must act accordingly. Striking deals with a regime that has persecuted bloggers and democratic activists would send the wrong signal.

President Sang was correct in remarking that differences between the US and Vietnam is normal. It is not normal, however, when those differences are in clear violation of universally established rights set forth by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which Vietnam is a signatory. The US, too, is beholden to its laws, and diminishes the integrity of its Constitution and goodwill abroad when it engages in activities in violation of its constitutionally-protected rights.

The new Vietnam

This working visit may not result in treaties or sweeping declarations from Presidents Sang and Obama; however, it may lay the foundations to a new chapter of US–Vietnam relations. The two leaders should therefore use this meeting to establish future opportunities for dialogue, and then negotiate over differences.

Freedom and democracy are not independent of prosperity and development. Vietnam yearns to return to those halcyon days when it was a beacon of economic prosperity in Southeast Asia, and further trade with the US could help return Vietnam to some of its past economic glory; however, any assumption that business will be as usual should go out the window.

As Vietnamese citizens grow wealthy and standards of living increase, they will soon demand more and more until the government, in its current state, can no longer provide. Already Vietnamese citizens taking to the Internet to voice their frustration at their leaders and aspiring for better things, political pluralism and private land ownership are being just some of the issues.

This meeting could pave the way for a visit from President Obama to Hanoi later in the year, and recognizing Vietnam as a strategic partner-all of which will be contingent on whether the US and Vietnam can successfully bridge their differences.

The years ahead will see Vietnam change. Whether the current crop of leaders in the Communist Party recognizes these changes as inevitable and adapts accordingly remains to be seen. As with nature, if the party fails to adapt, it will perish. Rather than sustain that which is doomed, the US should work to prepare for the new Vietnam.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time professor at the University of Ottawa's Civil Law Section; and researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.)