As the United States deepens strategic ties with Vietnam in response to a
rising China, a question now on many minds is how Washington will address
Hanoi's well-documented and continuing human rights abuses. The moral dilemma
for the Barack Obama administration is how it can reconcile long-standing US
support for democracy and human rights with its current realpolitik aims of
winning friends and influencing states concerned by an overbearing Beijing.
These two often contradictory strands of American foreign policy were
manifested in the media coverage surrounding Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton's presentations at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
Regional Forum held in Hanoi in July. Her public remarks before Vietnamese
leaders on upholding human rights dominated the first day's headlines.
On the following day, however, Clinton turned her focus to security matters.
Her declaration that the US had a national interest in maintaining an open
South China Sea and supported a multilateral solution to the maritime disputes
there between China and ASEAN countries became the biggest story out of the
ministerial meeting and still reverberates several months later.
United States-Vietnam watchers have witnessed a considerable warming of ties
this year. A highly visible sign was the August visit by the super carrier USS
Washington off the coast of Danang, not far from the Paracel Islands
occupied by China since 1974 but historically part of Vietnam. Substantive
cooperation is also underway in pursuing nuclear cooperation, crafting a
multilateral free trade agreement, initiating US weapons sales to Vietnam's
military and continuing military-political talks involving both countries'
foreign affairs and defense establishments.
Part of the reason for the tighter rapport is good timing. As the 2010 chair of
ASEAN, Vietnam became the public face of the regional grouping just when the
Obama administration sought to re-engage with Southeast Asia. US officials have
recently collaborated closely with their Vietnamese counterparts to prepare for
numerous mid- and high-level meetings. Given Hanoi's Foreign Ministry's lack of
experience on the international stage, US officials have reportedly played a
primary, if not behind-the-scenes, role in coordinating the various US-ASEAN
The bigger reason, however, is that the US needs Vietnam to contribute toward
stiffening ASEAN's spine, so that the 10-country body can collectively
counterbalance China's regional ambitions. Most of ASEAN's member states have
traditionally pursued an accommodationist policy toward Beijing. With its long
history of repelling Chinese invasions, ingrained worries about the Sino
threat, and its relative large size within ASEAN, Vietnam is uniquely
positioned to rally others in the bloc.
In addition, the US would like to see Vietnam join other countries in the
neighborhood - notably India, Australia, Japan and South Korea - to serve as a
strategic counterweight to China. Though no US official has publicly said so,
the American military also probably covets regular access to Vietnamese ports
to project power into the South China Sea, where a third of the world's
maritime trade flows yet which Beijing is increasingly treating as its own
With face time between the leadership of the two countries always a scarce
commodity, Obama recently met with Vietnamese state president Nguyen Minh Triet
and other ASEAN heads in New York and the US secretaries of State and Defense
will be in Hanoi in late October. The worry among some Vietnamese democracy
activists is that human rights, an issue where progress was crucial for the US
to re-establish normal trade relations and support Vietnam's bid to accede to
the World Trade Organization, are now being relegated to the diplomatic
There are precedents for expediency. In the fall of 2004, the George W Bush
administration blacklisted Vietnam as a ''Country of Particular Concern'' over
serious violations of religious freedom. Two years later, the State Department
removed Vietnam from the designation - not necessarily due to measurable
progress on religious freedom - but to pave the way for a cordial Bush visit to
Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting held in
Human rights advocates say that such real politik calculations are
short-sighted since greater political freedom in Vietnam would better suit
long-term US economic and security interests in the region. To be sure, human
rights has never been an all or nothing focus of US policy, and each US
administration since normalization of relations with Hanoi in 1995 has set
calibrations differently on the attention given to the issue.
There is a vocal human-rights lobby in congress that serves as a check on each
administration's realist tendencies on foreign policy. Only a day before the
US-ASEAN meeting in New York, 10 House members signed a letter calling on
Vietnam's government to release activists from the pro-democracy party Viet
Tan. During the summer, a congressional hearing into alleged beatings by police
of Catholic worshipers in the Con Dau parish in central Vietnam prompted the US
Embassy in Vietnam to conduct an investigation that is still unfolding.
In addition to congressional pressures, non-governmental organizations also
shape the debate. US-based rights group Human Rights Watch recently released a
report on systemic abuses by security police in Vietnam that detailed numerous
cases of political dissidents and ordinary citizens suffering from police
brutality and deaths in custody.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung attended a conference marking the
65th anniversary of communist Vietnam's public security forces at which he
called on his audience to crush all opposition political groups that could
threaten the Communist Party's control. The Hanoi leadership is in the midst of
preparing for the 11th party congress, where political promotions and
government policies will be decided in January 2011. As in the past, the run-up
to this conclave has been accompanied by an intensified crackdown on political
While addressing the UN General Assembly on September 23, Obama gave his
strongest statement yet in defense of the virtues of freedom: "Experience shows
us that history is on the side of liberty - that the strongest foundation for
human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments."
It is against this rhetorical backdrop and an ongoing political crackdown that
Obama reaches out to Hanoi.
While US treaty allies have historically tended to be stable democracies,
Washington also has a long history of partnering with authoritarian states,
though with more mixed results. Obama's overtures towards Vietnam thus
represent a policy risk, one influenced by his government's larger strategic
concerns over China's rising clout and assertiveness.
The Hanoist writes on Vietnam's politics and people.