Kerry's misbalanced agenda in Vietnam
By Duvien Tran and Khanh Vu Duc
When United States Secretary of State John Kerry attended Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral in the former Saigon, once capital of the US-backed South Vietnam, the message was clear and deliberate: Washington will continue to push for human rights reform in Vietnam, including greater allowances for freedom of religion.
Kerry's visit served as more than an advocacy campaign for civil liberty and human rights improvements by Vietnam's Communist Party-led authoritarian regime. Rather, it sought to bolster bilateral ties and reaffirm Washington's strategic commitments to Vietnam and the wider region to help counterbalance China's rising territorial assertiveness.
Kerry announced the US would provide US$18 million for five naval
patrol vessels as part of America's growing maritime assistance to the country. The vessels will inevitably be deployed in the South China Sea, where Vietnam is locked in territorial disputes with China.
America's top diplomat also met with Vietnam's business community to discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, which if implemented will present new trade opportunities not only for the US in the Asia-Pacific but also for Vietnam exporters in lucrative US markets.
If Kerry had any concerns about his reception prior to his return to Vietnam, including to the Mekong Delta for the first time since 1969 when he was deployed there as a naval officer during the US-Vietnam War, they were eased by geopolitical events involving the US and China in the South China Sea days before his arrival.
On December 5, the USS Cowpens was tracking China's new Liaoning aircraft carrier when the Cowpens was ordered to stop by an intercepting Chinese vessel. Adamant that it was operating in international waters, the US vessel refused and was later forced to quickly change course after the Chinese ship cut in front of the Cowpens. Chinese state media later blamed the US for provoking the situation.
Regardless of which side was to blame, the incident underscored Vietnam's concern about China's increasingly assertive posturing in the South China Sea. While the US has maintained its neutrality over territorial disputes in the maritime area, Washington has irked Beijing in recent years by asserting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is part of its "national interest".
By providing vessels for the Philippines' and Vietnam's respective Coast Guard, moves viewed as part of the US "pivot" policy to the Asia-Pacific, the US position in the disputes seems increasingly clear. The issue is drawing the US and Vietnam, once battlefield adversaries, into new strategic alignment.
While diplomatic ties have steadily improved since the two sides normalized relations, past and future efforts to expand the relationship have been and will continue to bog down in human rights concerns. Wary of American influence undermining it's authority, communist leaders continue to shrug off international criticism of its poor human rights record, often citing "cultural differences" as justification for crushing any dissent. This year, Hanoi has intensified a campaign of suppression aimed at democratic and human rights activists who speak out against the state, jailing scores on trumped up anti-state charges.
Since its entry to the World Trade Organization in 2007 and ongoing negotiations to enter the TPP, Vietnam has made almost no efforts to improve its abysmal rights record. Neither the US nor the international community can force Vietnam to move in a more democratic direction; that power lies solely with the people of Vietnam.
In Myanmar, where a transition from direct military to quasi-civilian rule has been strongly encouraged and widely lauded by the international community, change has been embraced at all levels, from the people to the leadership. Reform comes only when those who demand it move to seize it. However, where the people have spoken out, their leaders have perpetually failed to act - apart from detaining and punishing those who have spoken out for greater liberties.
The US will continually be challenged in dealing with a country that seemingly does not care about its rights-abusing image. It is one thing for Kerry to attend Mass at a Vietnamese church, symbolically demonstrating his and his country's commitment to religious freedom. It is quite another to advance human rights reform through a strategy of carrots and sticks.
So far, the US approach to Vietnam has featured more carrots than sticks. Kerry did not arrive in Vietnam empty-handed, witnessed in his offer of badly needed military assistance. While Kerry effectively engaged Vietnam's Communist Party leaders and aligned business community, less effort was given to advocating for the rights and liberties of the Vietnamese people.
Until the US predicates future engagement on improved human rights, Vietnam's leaders will see no reason to change their authoritarian ways.
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 in Ottawa, focusing on foreign policy, planning, and South China Sea security issues.
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