Vietnam Calling on Washington

News of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Washington, DC, has been cause for speculation. To be discussed are regional issues and trade, as well as climate change and human rights.

Given that the last and only time a Vietnamese president visited the nation’s capital was in 2007 when President Nguyen Minh Triet met withy President George W. Bush, one can assume President Sang’s might signal additional visits to come.

Broad regional issues, trade, and climate change are negotiable although a major sticking point has been human rights conditions in Vietnam. On this, the US has refused to negotiate, thus preventing Vietnam from securing its much desired strategic partnership with the US without serious concessions.

An uneven playing field
The relationship between the US and Vietnam is not an even one. Vietnam continues to seek a strategic partnership with the US. For the US, it has been a desire to see improvements in human rights conditions in Vietnam. Far from witnessing improvement, human rights conditions in Vietnam have worsened and as a result any chance of the US agreeing to a strategic partnership with the Southeast Asian country remains nil.

Bridging the divide will require compromise by both countries. However, the US may find itself in the right and be unwilling to accept anything less than their original demands. In the end, and at least for the foreseeable future, it is simply stark reality that the US, although having improved relations with its former foe, has far less need of Vietnam than vice versa.

For the US, Vietnam is a potential partner in its Asian-Pacific pivot. Access to ports (Vietnam has refused the possibility of a permanent US installation; however, port visits by US vessels are not uncommon), as well as Vietnam’s position in Asean make it a valuable partner with which to work through if the US seeks to increase its presence in the region. This being said, Vietnam is not an integral component to the US pivot. Vietnam is an opportunity, not a solution.

In light of this disparity, President Obama has little reason to invite his Vietnamese counterpart for discussion, unless President Sang is prepared to offer more than just lip service to improving human rights. However, President Obama also has little not to invite Vietnam to the negotiation table, for it has nothing to lose.

Given the uneven playing field, President Sang will unlikely press for a strategic partnership during his visit, knowing full well that the deck is stacked against him. Instead, the two heads of state will likely exchange ideas on how best to resolve this complicated issue, finding ways to get what each want without imposing on the other. Any agreement or partnership will likely be declared and/or signed in Vietnam than in the US, the former being in the region in which the US has pivoted to as part of its Asian-Pacific strategy.

However, by accepting President Obama’s invitation, Vietnam has at least shown itself ready to deal, not only on economic issues, but also core American concerns – a small step and a first step, but an important one to be sure.

The US as a balancing influence
While the US may not regard Vietnam has important to its greater foreign policy, Washington has the potential to play a pivotal role in Vietnamese foreign policy. Whether or not the country’s leaders intend to respect the US’ insistence for human rights reform, they have no choice but to entertain the US’ demands. If Vietnam’s leaders hope to receive any form of substantial American assistance, they have no choice but implement said demands. It is not incumbent upon the US to extend to Vietnam anything beyond an olive branch, and so the onus is on the latter to engage and compromise.

Despite whatever opinion Vietnam’s leaders might have of the US, the US does not pose a threat. Rather, the concern for Vietnam is, at present, its northern neighbor, with the US serving as the lesser of two evils.

If China is a looming figure in Southeast Asia, it is an especially dominant figure in Vietnamese politics. Although the two historical might foes continue to bicker and battle over maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, China remains to be Vietnam’s largest trading partner, followed by the US. In 2012, Vietnam recorded a US$15.6 billion trade surplus against the US; however, in that same year, it recorded a US$16.4 billion trade deficit with China. If for no other reason, the US serves as a practical counterbalance to China’s increasing influence and presence in Vietnamese life.

The Sino-Vietnamese relationship is a complicated one, and it is not an exaggeration to say that China’s economy can easily swallow that of its much smaller southern neighbor. It is this fear that has largely driven politics between Hanoi and Washington. A strategic partnership with the US would, at least for Vietnamese officials, provide some peace of mind; however, the usefulness of such a partnership will largely depend on the details and fine print, and only after the necessary concessions are made.

However, Vietnamese interests in the US go beyond economics, and not simply for the country’s rulers but also for the average citizen.

The recent national discussion on constitutional reform in Vietnam has brought to light the very problems many of its citizens have been railing against on the Internet: democracy, or lack thereof. The Communist Party, as the supreme authoritative power, is not held accountable for its mistakes, of which it has many, exacerbated by the government’s economic mismanagement and stifling dissent.

When the Communist Party of Vietnam is viewed as being not so different from its Chinese counterpart, the US is seen as being a much better alternative to the status quo. To borrow an adage: “Any port in a storm.”

The foundations for tomorrow
There exists a current of discontent in Vietnam. In an effort to get ahead of the storm, it may be that President Sang hopes to broach President Obama with minor concessions on human rights, such as the release of some dissidents for security promises. It may be that President Sang hopes to stem this tide of discontent, this tide for democracy; but in the end, he simply buying time for might prove to be the inevitable. While democracy in Vietnam may not be on the agenda of the Obama Administration, it is fair to say that demands in human rights improvements will not end with the release of some dissidents, a token gesture if any.

It remains and has always been the fear of Vietnam’s leaders that America’s demands for human rights today will serve as a vehicle for democracy tomorrow. However, if these leaders and the Communist Party are so intent on securing a strategic partnership with the US, are so intent to resist the creeping influence of China, they must be prepared to pay the price.

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