Vietnam After Obama

When Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Vietnam last November, he was welcomed with a 21-gun salute by his hosts and protests by activists. The Vietnamese did not line the streets to get a glimpse of the China leader and there were no reports of Vietnam's young people clamoring to take selfies with Xi.

On his visit to Vietnam this month, Barack Obama was not afforded the same ceremonial flourishes that Xi received, but the American president was enthusiastically greeted by thousands of Vietnamese wherever he went. Vietnamese media was awash with pictures of Obama connecting with ordinary people and clips of his remarks were shared among Vietnam's 35 million plus Facebook community.

What does all this mean? Analysts have tended to focus on Obama’s decision to lift the arms embargo and what that might portend for US-Vietnam relations. But there is something more fundamental in the bilateral relationship with implications for both Vietnam's foreign policy and domestic politics.

Soft-power triumph

More so than perhaps anywhere else in the world, Vietnam is where American soft power has triumphed. Public opinion surveys consistently note the extent to which the Vietnamese “street” holds a favorable view of the US. In one online survey of Vietnamese Facebook users, 92 percent of respondents expressed a wish to ally with the United States while only 1 percent said the same about China.

With nearly 20,000 Vietnamese currently studying in the United States and many more wanting to go, it’s almost inevitable for Vietnam to orient toward the United States. Besides representing a beacon of opportunity and freedom, the US has no designs on Vietnam's maritime sovereignty. And it seems that everyone in Vietnam has a relative living in California.

Until recently, the Hanoi leadership's ambivalence in cozying up to the United States, along with its deplorable human rights record, was a check on warmer ties. Even in recent years, state media and senior communist leaders would occasionally fall back on the old rhetoric and rail against American "imperialism." But after Obamamania hit Vietnam--including cordial meetings with the top Hanoi leadership--it is really hard for the Communist Party to play the anti-America card going forward. Although unelected, Vietnam's communist leadership is not immune to public pressure or the views of the party base. With US-Vietnam interests largely aligned on key issues and the regime's previous anti-American mindset cast aside by a deep well of pro-American sentiment, expect Vietnam to pivot to the United States. The trajectory may not always be smooth, but it's becoming increasingly clear that the Vietnamese Communist Party will have to pull itself out of the Chinese orbit.

At the insistence of Hanoi, the joint US-Vietnam statement pledged both countries to observe “their respective political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity." The language on political systems was meant to reassure a nervous Hanoi leadership about US intentions.

Cautiously critical

And like a polite visitor, the Obama administration was careful not to offend. American officials had advocated for concrete human rights improvements in the months leading up to the president's visit, but in the end there was not much to show except the release of Catholic priest Nguyen Van Ly three months before the conclusion of his 8-year prison term; the "modest" improvements cited by Obama were mainly the intentions of the Hanoi government to undertake promised legal reforms.

Unlike the meeting with dissidents during Obama's recent Cuba trip, the American embassy in Hanoi did not even ensure that human rights defenders invited to meet with Obama would be able to leave their homes. Following the meeting with civil society leaders on May 24, the president indicated that several activists "were prevented from coming for various reasons” but refrained from openly criticizing the authorities. The lack of overt pressure on human rights has been criticized by many commentators and human rights groups.

Yet the American commitment to political openness and freedom was unmistakable. The meeting with civil society, despite key invitees being blocked from attending, included true civil society actors, not representatives from the government-organized NGOs. Moreover, the six Vietnamese activists in attendance got some impressive face time. In addition to Obama, seated around the table were the American secretary of state, national security advisor, deputy national security advisor, and ambassador.

In public remarks, Obama presented compelling arguments for human rights and an open society. In his live address to the Vietnamese people and town hall the following day with youth leaders, Obama affirmed the obvious point that the Vietnamese people should determine how to organize their own society. He did not use the type of "color revolution" language that would spook the communist leadership, but he clearly stated that Vietnam's future is up to its people.

Obama's Vietnam visit also provided stark contrasts between a democratically elected leader and those who aren’t. Many Vietnamese were awed by how Obama comfortably spoke to the press while his counterpart, a wooden Tran Dai Quang, responded to planted questions by directly reading from a sheet of paper. Obama displayed a common touch by venturing out for dinner in the old quarter of Hanoi and later stepping out of his motorcade in the rain to visit an outdoor stall. Vietnamese state media covered these events with admiration, implying that the current Vietnamese leaders do not interact with citizens in the same way.

Beijing's reaction

Based on the reaction from China, it seems that Beijing also senses a new paradigm. So far the official line from Beijing is to play down any differences with Hanoi. “China and Vietnam are friendly neighbors connected by mountains and rivers,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Nevertheless, with the American arms embargo lifted, it will be remarkable indeed when Vietnam purchases advanced radars and other military equipment from the US. But what is more remarkable is the deep and broad domestic sentiment underwriting the realignment in the country’s foreign relations.

This has the potential to support a political transformation within the country itself. Vietnamese were mesmerized to watch the live town hall of Obama taking unscripted questions from Vietnam’s millennials. According to one young person after the event, “I’m not looking for President Obama to solve Vietnam’s problems, but I want to know why our country cannot produce someone like that."

Duy Hoang is a US-based leader of Viet Tan, an unsanctioned pro-democracy political party in Vietnam.