By: Duvien Tran and Khanh Vu Duc

Following stops in Jerusalem and Ramallah later this week, United States Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit Vietnam to “highlight the dramatic transformation in the bilateral relationship over the years” and the two countries’ growing partnership.

From 1995 when then-US President Bill Clinton normalized relations; to 2001 when a Bilateral Trade Agreement was finally established between the two countries; to 2006 when top US businesses backed Vietnam’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization; and to the present with Vietnam’s expected inclusion in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as well as the US–Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership formed in July, economic relations between the US and Vietnam have certainly experienced a dramatic transformation.

However, has this relationship been a one-sided affair? In the nearly 20 years since the US resumed relations with Vietnam, little progress has been achieved in the fundamental areas of democratic and human rights reform.

Human Rights Watch describes Vietnam’s human rights record as “weak,” and restriction on freedom of expression as “severe” according to Amnesty International. The US-based Freedom House, which publishes the yearly Freedom in the World survey, ranking countries by political rights and civil liberties, lists Vietnam as “not free.”

Despite whatever misgivings Washington might have against Hanoi, it may be that the US views its ongoing relationship with Vietnam as necessary, to the expense of democratic and human rights. With China’s creeping expansion in Asia Pacific raising concern among its neighbors, the US has undoubtedly sought to exploit these concerns and divisions. However, in pursuing such a relationship, has the US undermined its own efforts in Asia Pacific?

A failure of influence

In late November, China’s establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea included the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in dispute with Japan, as well as a portion of South Korea’s own ADIZ. Following the backlash, which involved a flight of two US B-52 bombers through the area and South Korea’s expansion of its ADIZ, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa called for de-escalation, fearing that the dispute would spill into the South China Sea.

China may attempt to establish a similar ADIZ over the South China Sea down the road, regardless of the response that followed or the outcome in Northeast Asia.

The South China Sea, which China claims in whole under its nine-dash map, includes numerous maritime and territorial disputes, among which is the potentially volatile Spratly Islands, claimed in part or completely by several Southeast Asian countries and China. Perhaps not surprisingly, China’s claims to the sea and the islands are most vocally opposed by the Philippines, a traditional ally of the US, and Vietnam — two countries that Secretary Kerry will visit in the coming days.

Despite their opposition, neither the Philippines nor Vietnam is in any position to respond effectively to China’s establishment of an ADIZ. Whereas Japan and South Korea boast robust militaries, the respective militaries of the Philippines and Vietnam are comparatively less capable. However, whereas the Philippines maintains a Mutual Defense Treaty with the US, Vietnam simply does not.

Thus, the US sees in Vietnam an opportunity of a country in need.

The mystery is not why Vietnam needs the US. The US is currently the number one destination for Vietnamese exports, accounting for 17.5 percent of all Vietnamese exports, with the US being a net importer of Vietnamese goods since 1997 with a trade deficit of US$16 billion. All of this is to say nothing of America as a counterbalance to China in Asia Pacific.

Rather, the great mystery is why the US has yet to exercise leverage in guiding Vietnam towards democratic reform and economic liberalization. In light of Vietnam’s constitutional amendment, which dashed the hopes of any sort of political reform and cemented the role of state-owned enterprises in the Vietnamese economy, it would appear that Hanoi has done just the opposite, against the desires and interests of Washington.

Yet, at least for America’s leaders, it is business as usual with Vietnam. Ultimately, it may be that Washington lacks a clear vision for Vietnam in US foreign policy. While Vietnam is ideally placed in Southeast Asia to potentially assist the US in its pivot to the Asia Pacific, the US does not have in Vietnam an ally or friend, as evidenced by Washington’s inability to wield real influence in Hanoi.

In a 2002 Pew Research survey showed that an overwhelming 71 percent of Vietnamese held a favorable opinion of the US, and 76 percent with regards to the American people. Although more than a decade has since passed, Vietnamese opinions toward the US are probably still trending positively given the absence of any serious acrimony between the two peoples. Yet, these are not the people with whom the US is dealing.

If the US hopes to expand its influence in Vietnam, it must first do so by looking beyond Hanoi, for Vietnam’s leaders do not accurately reflect the hopes and aspirations of the Vietnamese people. Regardless of whatever “dramatic transformation” has been achieved between the governments of the US and Vietnam thus far, if the US cannot exercise real influence in Hanoi, it cannot depend on Vietnam to assist in its pivot to Asia Pacific.

As a consequence of accepting the status quo, by withholding serious efforts at pressuring the Vietnamese government to undertake much needed political and civil rights reform for fear of losing a strategic partner in Asia Pacific, the US has allowed Vietnam’s leaders the freedom to do as they so please, even when it goes against America’s interests.

(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. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at the VDK Law Office, focusing focuses on foreign policy, strategic planning, and South China Sea security issues.)