Will the US Arm Vietnam?

In a recent bipartisan press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam, Republican US Sen. John McCain, joined by Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat, expressed it best when he remarked how a partnership built on shared values is “the closest, strongest, and most enduring friendship two nations can have.”

In the same press conference, McCain announced the possibility of easing its lethal weapons ban, albeit with certain restrictions. It is an idea that has gained traction on and off Capitol Hill, as well as being suggested by Ted Osius, the US nominee for ambassador to Vietnam, during his Senate nomination hearing.

Lifting the weapons ban would signal a drastic shift in US–Vietnam relations, but it could also be perceived as a threat by China and destabilize the region. A much more immediate concern, however, is that any weapons sold to Hanoi would be used against the country’s own people. Given this, as was echoed by McCain, the sale of arms would be limited and dependent on action taken by the government on human rights.

The potential for such an enduring friendship requires shared values. On this front, it would appear the US and Vietnam are at an impasse. With the topic of democratic and human rights reform in Vietnam largely off-limits when the two countries meet, Washington remains hesitant at taking the next step.

This, of course, is not to say the Vietnamese people differ greatly from ordinary Americans. In fact, given that Vietnam is a single-party state under the domineering authority of the Communist Party, one must distinguish between those who rule and those who are forced to follow. Even among party members, influence and power are wielded by the very few.

Vietnamese, by and large, are denied any input regarding their political destiny. Any glimmer of hope that they can contribute productively is nothing more than a cruel trick, as was evidenced during the passage of a recent constitutional amendment that actually strengthens the Communist Party’s grip on power in the face of thousands of responses from ordinary citizens. An opportunity for reform was dashed, and the will of the people was ignored. Again, the party had spoken for the people, deciding for them their place in the State.

Whereas rights including one’s right to peacefully assemble or vote for a political candidate of one’s choice are taken for granted by many Americans, such rights are limited, if not outright denied, to Vietnamese citizens. When McCain spoke of shared values, he referred to these basic rights, a sense of social justice and democracy desired and cherished by both the American and Vietnamese people.

For Hanoi, if ever there was a time to change, now would be it. With deteriorating relations between Vietnam and China, Vietnam’s Communist leaders must decide whether they wish to carry on the same path in the vain hope that Beijing will no longer cause them trouble, or they can chart a new course through nation-building. Hopefully, Hanoi will see wisdom in choosing the latter.

What will emerge from this exercise in nation-building remains to be seen. However, there are certain principles and ideals to which Vietnam must adhere and aspire. First, and perhaps most easy to achieve, is the principle of sovereignty and independence. Vietnam has always been a fiercely independent nation, and any future leader should take care to consider the will of his or her people in charting Vietnam’s path ahead.

However, for Vietnam to endure it must also achieve a level of prosperity and learn to navigate sometimes-hostile waters. As the global recession revealed, the Vietnamese government was rife with economic mismanagement and corruption. If Vietnam hopes to prosper, its public and private leaders must be accountable and transparent in their conduct. This applies not only to commerce and domestic policy but also foreign policy. The Vietnamese people must be informed that their leaders will not engage the country in unnecessary conflicts abroad.

Lastly, but no less important, social justice and democracy, as well as personal liberties, human rights and the rule of law must be ensured, respected and protected. This more than the others may prove to be the most difficult to implement and sustain in a country that has never truly enjoyed such freedoms. However, over time and through overcoming challenges that will necessarily arise from making mistakes, Vietnam will acquire the experience and maturity to thrive.

Principles and Ideals

In the wake of the oil rig incident between Vietnam and China, relations between the neighbors have hit a low. Despite this, Vietnam may not yet be ready to jump ship and associate freely with the US. Relations have cooled between Hanoi and Beijing, but not severed. If the US hopes to peel Vietnam away from China’s influence, it should do without agitating Vietnam’s leadership.

The roadmap to change of any sort in Vietnam rests in the hands of the country’s current crop of leaders, many of whom are wary of accepting too much help from the US, fearing American assistance will necessarily lead to an overthrow of the government and Communist Party.

It is true that any real change in direction in Vietnam will necessitate a change in the manner in which the government operates. Still, given that the military and security forces, presently and for the foreseeable future, remain under the control of the government and party, it is unlikely that Hanoi need worry about any organized armed rebellion or a coup d’état should it consider a change of course.

Reform can only be a good thing. Regardless of whatever fears, real or imaginary, perceived by Vietnam’s leaders, the status quo ante will not endure for long. China’s ambitions in the South China Sea and greater Asia-Pacific will not take Vietnam into account as an equal partner.

However, despite positive relations between the US and Vietnam since 1995 and the signing of a comprehensive partnership, the US is neither required nor pressed to form any alliance or upgrade relations. Rather, Washington has chosen to seek closer ties with Hanoi with much to offer and comparatively few in demands. Would Vietnam not prefer the US as a counterbalancing force to China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea?

Recognizing the need for change, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung was quoted during his New Year’s speech, declaring democracy to be inevitable. However, recognizing that democracy is inevitable and actively engaging in democratic reform are two different things. Nevertheless, there is some comfort – even hope, perhaps – in that democracy has not been completely ruled out in Vietnam.

In their visit to Vietnam, McCain and Whitehouse affirmed America’s commitment to advancing relations between the two countries. As with any give-and-take relationship, if Vietnam desires to secure a partner in the US, progress will largely depend on how much Hanoi is willing to compromise. Shared goals and interests provide fertile ground to acquaint with one another, but shared values serve as the foundation for a lasting and productive relationship.

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. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel