Vietnam Between Rock and a Hard Place

Head-of-state visits typically take months to organize, but Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang is going to Washington on very short notice and just after an evidently jolting encounter with China's leaders. Could it be that Sang and his colleagues have decided to pay the price the US has demanded for a "strategic partnership"?

Early in June, US State Department officials told a Congressional subcommittee that closer ties with Vietnam, in particular weapons sales, are on hold until there is "continued, demonstrable, sustained improvement in the human rights situation." The officials put on the public record a message that US diplomats have been delivering privately for a couple of years. Their testimony largely went unnoticed except by the online media that stoke the fires of dissidence in Vietnam.

Coincidentally, Vietnamese police arrested yet another blogger on June 13, charging Pham Viet Dao with "abusing his right of free speech to undermine the interests of the State." According to the Associated Press, 43 dissidents have been jailed this year, twice the pace of 2012. Moreover, there's evidence that the cybersecurity arm of Vietnam's police has deployed FinFisher surveillance technology - made by UK-based Gamma International - to plant spy software in computers and smartphones of people who access dissident blogs.

Hanoi has not welcomed American démarches on human rights issues. Party stalwarts gag on demands that Vietnam allow greater democratic freedoms, fearing that Washington’s true objective is to bring down the regime.

The crackdown on bloggers seemed to manifest a regime tilt toward China, the bête noire of Vietnam's dissidents. For years, dissident bloggers have flayed the regime for, they say, its failure to defend Vietnam's interests against its giant neighbor. Exhibit A: China's step-by-step solidification of a claim to "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea, including waters off Vietnam's coast.

Vietnam's naval and air forces, though not insignificant, are no match for China's.

Rather than risk clashes over disputed rocks and reefs - and possible oil and gas deposits - Vietnam's rulers have sought to brake Chinese aggression by rallying the support of Asean partners and by forging "strategic relationships" with the United States and other extra-regional powers. The results of these diplomatic efforts have been modest. Asean's 10 members have jawed on about "centrality" in regional matters, but failed to establish a common front with respect to China's sweeping territorial claims. Meanwhile, wary of being maneuvered into defending Vietnamese or Filipino islets, the United States has insisted that it "does not take sides" on territorial disputes. Worried also that the rising superpower will retaliate in other areas, Washington and most Asean capitals have shied away from direct challenge to Beijing's quest for hegemony over waters lying between Hong Kong and Singapore.

Beijing's claims are based on records of visits by fishermen centuries ago. In contrast, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam rely on the UN Charter on the Law of the Sea and other international law. Policy shepherds in Washington agree that the thicket of claims must be untangled by reference to those legal precepts. But this stance is undermined by repeated US failures to ratify UNCLOS and the failure of the four Asean frontline states to sort out conflicting claims among themselves. The stance offers no clue to Washington's course if Beijing continues to nibble its way toward a fait accompli.

As tensions have risen, non-Communist Vietnamese and a significant faction within the Communist Party have urged a de facto economic and military alliance with the US. There's been progress toward Vietnam's membership in the projected US-led Trans-Pacific economic partnership. Although many party leaders remain skeptical of US intentions, in the last four years there's been remarkable expansion of consultations with the US armed forces. In June, for example, senior members of Vietnam's general staff toured US bases.

Until last week, that sort of military-to-military dalliance, designed to signal to Beijing that Hanoi has options, seemed to have hit its natural limits - friendly visits and a bit of training in non-combat activities like search-and-rescue operations. A year ago Vietnam rejected former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's proposal that it host rotations of US troops and warships.

Again this spring, Beijing has flexed its maritime muscles. Uncharacteristically, Hanoi hardly reacted. In May, it registered pro forma complaints about rough treatment dealt to Vietnamese fishermen and denied a PetroVietnam report that Chinese vessels had harassed one of the state oil company's survey ships. Why became clear on June 14, when Hanoi announced that President Sang would pay a state visit to China.

Sang's mid-June trip, the first by a top Vietnamese leader since Xi Jinping was installed as China's president in March, was loaded with ritual and meaning accrued over a millennium of such missions. The Vietnamese are justly proud of a tradition of successful resistance to invading Chinese armies. Also throughout their history, they've often induced China to respect Vietnam's autonomy by projecting deference. Last month, Hanoi was kowtowing vigorously.

The orchestration of Sang's visit suggests that notwithstanding frictions, Vietnam's leaders remain hopeful that China’s leaders will not betray a ruling party so like their own. There was the usual heavy stress on the two countries' "comprehensive strategic relationship." Signatures were affixed to a sheaf of routine agreements.

Other than an earful of admonition, Sang appears to have taken little home from Beijing. Xi promised that China would "actively take effective and drastic measures" to narrow a US$16 billion imbalance in bilateral trade flows. Such promises have been made before to no great effect. On the South China Sea, Sang had nothing to show but agreement on a hot line to discuss incidents involving fishermen.

By rejecting mention of UNCLOS, to which both nations are signatories, and other prescriptions of international law as the foundation of a territorial settlement, Beijing stepped back from assurances it gave Vietnam 20 months ago when Hanoi agreed to bilateral negotiation of claims to the Paracels, islets that China wrested from South Vietnam in 1974. Those talks haven't made visible progress. Conceding as much, Xi and Sang agreed that they'd be intensified.

The Politburo's decision to send Sang to Washington suggests that Vietnam's leaders have been shaken by what Xi and his colleagues told Sang in private and are ready to deal with the US on a more intimate defense relationship. A leading dissident was to go to trial on the day before Sang's pending trip was announced; that trial has been indefinitely postponed. Vietnam’s leaders may hope President Barack Obama will settle for such cosmetic gestures. If so, they are likely mistaken.

As the administration acknowledged to Congress last month, "the American people will not support a dramatic upgrading of bilateral ties without demonstrable progress on human rights." In fact, the US does not need a more robust military tie with Vietnam to defend its interests in the South China Sea. It can afford to take the long view and surprise cynics by standing firm on human rights.

With Vietnam War veterans John Kerry and Chuck Hagel now supervising US foreign and defense policy that may be exactly what the US will do.

(David Brown, a freelance journalist and retired US diplomat, worked in Vietnam for many years. A regular contributor to Asia Sentinel, he wrote this for the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.)