The success of the United States in Southeast Asia and its "pivot" policy in the Asia-Pacific will be built on the strength of its partnerships with strategic allies. Longstanding allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia have provided the US with strong support in the region, but to implement the "pivot" Washington needs to expand its pool of reliable strategic partners.
Vietnam has the potential to serve as one of those partners: under the current ruling Communist Party of Vietnam or a different future political regime, there always has been and always will be concern in Hanoi about the influence and intentions of its giant
northern neighbor, China.
Whether it was the Soviet Union during the Cold War or perhaps America today, Vietnam has always looked towards a great power alliance to counterbalance China. As such, Vietnam's geopolitical reality and mounting strategic concerns provide the US with a golden opportunity to bolster its position in a significant way in Southeast Asia and the wider Asia-Pacific.
Though Vietnam and China are both ruled by nominally Communist parties, these organizations are now largely divorced from ideology. The similarities end there, however. While both regimes maintain uncontested one-party rule over their respective countries, Vietnam is far from a guaranteed ally of China, evidenced by past conflicts and current maritime and territorial disputes.
For the US to capitalize on Vietnam's current "gray", neither-friend-nor-foe status, it must first resolve several concerns, including Hanoi's abysmally poor human rights record, lack of democracy, and managing China's fears of the emergence of a potential US-proxy next door.
The US cannot easily overlook Vietnam's human rights transgressions, including a mounting crackdown on political dissidents that began in 2009. However, neither can it push Vietnam's communist rulers into a corner.
The challenge for Washington is to determine how much it is willing to give up for increased access to Vietnam's markets, ports, and strategic position vis-a-vis China. Given how much the US is likely to ask - respect for the rule of law and a significant improvement in human rights - the two sides will find it difficult to strike a mutually acceptable compromise.
China is also unlikely to turn a blind eye to any potential reforms in Vietnam that will threaten Beijing's level of influence in Hanoi. Vietnam and China are currently embroiled in territorial disputes over the potentially oil-and-gas rich Paracel and Spratly Islands - high-stakes rows that are both fluid and increasingly volatile.
Beijing's concerns may be assuaged by the fact that Vietnam's Communist Party leaders are unlikely to usher in any political reforms, including a loosening on political dissent, that could facilitate their eventual demise. Moreover, Beijing may rest easy in the belief that any forceful attempt by the US to effect political change in Vietnam will push the country's leaders closer to China.
For the US, Hanoi's strategic dilemma presents Washington with an opportunity to play a long game in which political reform is not immediate but eventually assured. Where power is absolute and unchecked in Vietnam, leaders are unwilling to implement changes that would result in a diminishment of their influence and control.
The US strategy in Vietnam must not only satisfy the Vietnamese leaders' sense of self-preservation but also act to improve human rights. It's a diplomatic tightrope where compromise broadly benefits the Vietnamese regime, including through desired military-to-military engagement, while at the same time weakening its control over the grass roots population.
For this to work, Washington must come to terms with the reality that human rights reform cannot come before political reform in Vietnam. To this end, the US should engage in a messaging campaign designed to politicize and organize the Vietnamese public in a way acceptable to the Communist Party. Efforts to change Vietnam should not come from outside the country's borders, for such initiatives would inevitably have diplomatic fallout. Instead, change should be promoted at the grass roots.
By shifting the struggle for human rights reform to the Vietnamese people, the US can maintain a fairly "hands free" policy towards Vietnam's leaders. Although the struggle for democratic and human rights reform has been championed by numerous Vietnamese individuals, tacit American support for the people's struggle could pave an eventual path towards real reform.
It must be the people's fight, to succeed or fail on their own. But there is reason to hope for success given the recent emergence of Petition 72, which, among other things, calls for an end to one-party rule in Vietnam. The petition, drafted by local scholars, was drawn up in response to the constitutional revisions currently being undertaken by the Communist Party, which aim broadly to further strengthen the government's powers.
Rather than intervening directly, the US would be well-served in allowing the Vietnamese people to chart their own course towards reform, and in doing so establish some necessary goodwill. The US should refrain from pushing too hard on the current Vietnamese government and focus its energy instead on supporting the people's struggle through political support.
To this end, the case for democracy and human rights is best fought through the dissemination of knowledge. Although activists have talked about the need for democracy in Vietnam, for people born and raised in a country that is overtly undemocratic, it is still mostly an alien concept - difficult to imagine and even more difficult to implement.
In order to better educate the Vietnamese people on democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, the US could establish a type of learning center in Vietnam, perhaps with assistance from the United Nations and/or non-government organizations, dedicated to these liberal issues. The US ran a similar center in military-ruled Myanmar before that country's recent transition towards quasi-civilian democracy.
Washington could also provide for select Vietnamese individuals to travel abroad and experience democracy first hand. By allowing Vietnamese citizens to witness what it means to live in a country that is democratic, where government is accountable to its people, they would ideally be inspired to fight for the same at home. Rather than a top down approach to advocating reform, which ultimately will require the Communist Party government to act in good faith, the US should concentrate instead on cultivating Vietnam's next generation of leaders from the ground up.
To be sure, any attempt to introduce such a democracy center in Vietnam will face stiff resistance from elements inside the Communist Party who fear it will serve to undermine their position and authority. Such a US-linked center would no doubt also be seen by some as a US attempt to insert itself in Vietnamese internal affairs and subvert the government. As the US and Vietnam expand and deepen bilateral ties, there are conservative elements within the Communist Party who remain suspicious of the US's intentions.
That said, Vietnam's military would benefit immensely from deepened ties with the US. Military-to-military cooperation is seen by many as a stepping stone towards the sharing of ideas and bridging past and present divides. The fact that the US has so far refused to export lethal arms to Vietnam is a matter beyond the consideration of the average soldier, sailor, or airman eager to learn from and exchange with their US counterparts.
US-supported modernization of Vietnam's military would no doubt be warmly welcomed by many Vietnamese generals. Vietnam's military leaders no longer worry about American aggression and are instead focused on a potential clash in the South China Sea or along its land border with China. On the other hand, Vietnam's internal security apparatus - the one charged with squashing internal dissent - will likely be less receptive to Washington's overtures.
For the US, growing closer to Vietnam without being seen as overbearing or subversive will require a delicate balancing act. The US is unlikely to lift its restrictions on the export of lethal weapons to Vietnam without clear evidence of an improvement in human rights, lest the weapons be pointed against the Vietnamese people rather than positioned to deter China. Conversely, Vietnam is unlikely to compromise if it believes the US is attempting, directly or indirectly, to weaken the Communist Party.
In courting Vietnam, the US can play either a short or long game. In the short scenario, the US will compromise on core values like human rights and democracy to quickly develop a China-balancing strategic partner in Hanoi. In the long game, the US will invest in the Vietnamese people to one day reclaim control of their country and look towards America as that democratic beacon not on Capitol Hill but across the Pacific.
Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa who researches on Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.
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