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    Southeast Asia
     Dec 11, '13

Vietnam squanders reform opportunity
By Khanh Vu Duc

At hand was an opportunity for reform, a chance to lead Vietnam in a new liberal direction with the popular backing of the Vietnamese people. Instead, on November 28, the National Assembly cemented the authoritarian status quo, reaffirming and solidifying the central role of the ruling Communist Party in national affairs.

Although the recent constitutional amendment process was open to the general public, the people's opinions, many expressed critically on the country's vibrant blogosphere, others collected in thousands of public conferences and discussions, were ultimately ignored. Such is the tradition in Vietnam's one-party state, where the government commands complete control and squashes civil

liberties to maintain its dominance. The new charter will take effect on January 1.

The heart of the disagreement between the people and the state is the new constitution's Article 4, which as in the 1992 charter legally guarantees the Communist Party's central role. The new charter expands that controversial article's scope, which under the previous constitution identified the Communist Party as the "vanguard of the Vietnamese working class", but in the new one includes "all of the Vietnamese people".

There were faint hopes that Vietnam's leaders, under growing economic stress at home and rising international pressure to improve their country's poor rights record, would use the opportunity to introduce a measure of genuine reform.

Reform advocates said that scrapping Article 4 would have been a significant first step towards democratization by opening the political process to parties and groups other than the Communist Party. Some believed Vietnam's accession last month to the United Nations Human Rights Council would nudge party leaders in a more liberal direction.

The 2013 constitution, approved by nearly 98% of the National Assembly's 488 lawmakers, is an entirely new document, albeit with the same core principles. While the new Article 4 acknowledges that the Party is "responsible before the people" for its policies and decisions, critics argue that the charter's language is vague in many key areas, including on how the Communist Party-dominated government's performance and actions will be monitored and scrutinized.

The Communist Party's decision to stay the same legal course should be carefully considered by the United States and other international trade partners. US Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to travel to Vietnam in the coming week to meet with party leaders and push ahead the "Comprehensive Partnership" announced during Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang's visit with US President Barack Obama in July. A US State Department release on Kerry's upcoming visit said it aimed to highlight the "dramatic transformation" of bilateral relations in recent years.

In that direction, the two sides are expected to advance or even finalize negotiations on Vietnam's admission to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The TPP aims to link Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam into a preferential trade bloc. Other Asian countries, including India, Indonesia and the Philippines, have expressed interest in joining the partnership.

Despite long-standing US concerns about Vietnam's abysmal human rights record, underscored by this year's rash of arrests of pro-democracy activists, dissidents and independent bloggers, Washington has done little to demand change as part of the TPP negotiations.

Pro-engagement advocates in Washington have argued that pressing too hard on the issue could jeopardize progress achieved since signing a bilateral trade deal in 2000. For its part, Vietnam has consistently brushed aside such criticism, citing obscure reasons of internal and national security.

The US obviously wants to avoid accusations of intervening in Vietnam's internal affairs. However, the TPP's market-opening opportunities give the US significant leverage to pressure Vietnam's leaders to enact much-needed reforms, not only in terms of human rights but also for the economy.

Washington pressured Hanoi to ease up on its persecution of religious rights in exchange for its approval of Vietnam's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2007. However, Communist Party leaders quickly reverted to their repressive ways months after entering the global trade club.

Vietnam has since emerged as an increasingly important US strategic partner. That was underscored by this July's formation of the US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, which promotes bilateral cooperation across a wide range of areas, including security and defense. Vietnam is also viewed as a crucial ally in the US's so-called "pivot" to the Asia Pacific, a policy gambit that aims to reposition 60% of America's naval assets to the region by 2020 and counterbalance China's influence.

While security ties are set to deepen, it is not clear that Vietnam is willing to accommodate the TPP's various trade and investment liberalization measures. For example, Article 51(1) of the new constitution reaffirms the central role of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in Vietnam's socialist-oriented market economy. That provision appears to run against the TPP's requirement of equal standing between state-run and privately held businesses and blatantly flouts widespread international criticism of inefficient and indebted SOEs drag on the local economy.

In a November 28 statement in reaction to the constitutional provision on SOEs, the American Chamber of Commerce said, "Unfortunately, the Constitution reaffirmed the leading role of the state in Vietnam's economy, which is not an encouraging sign that the country is eager to compete in the global economy." It is unclear if Vietnam will stand firm on maintaining the leading role of SOEs in the economy at upcoming TPP negotiations.

As the US strives to strengthen bilateral ties, Washington should recognize that it is negotiating with unaccountable Communist Party elites rather than the people's chosen leaders. Passed in the name of reform, the new charter has maintained the gap between the people's will and actual holders of power.

But if Washington aims to make Vietnam a long-term and stable component of its "pivot" policy, it will eventually need to acknowledge the Vietnamese people as the country's legitimate stakeholders.

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.

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