Having visited Vietnam a couple of times in the last four years, most recently in March, I fully approve of the steps that President Obama is taking to build on Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s efforts to convert Vietnam from an erstwhile enemy into a present-day ally. The most recent such step is Obama’s announcement, amid a visit to Hanoi, that the U.S. will lift its arms embargo.
With a population of 90 million and an economic growth rate of around 7 percent per annum, Vietnam is a rapidly rising economic and strategic power in Southeast Asia. While Hanoi remains somewhat sleepy and backward – and, thus, also a better tourist draw because there is more history preserved — Ho Chi Minh City (nee Saigon) is a dynamic mega-city. Its streets are no longer thronged with bicycles and cyclos (three-wheeled, peddled contraptions that serve as primitive taxis). Instead, there are cars and motorbikes everywhere. New stores and businesses appear to be opening everywhere. The largely young population has long forgotten the Vietnam War and is welcoming toward Americans. English long ago replaced French as the second language of choice, and cafes are full of American iconography, including pictures of New York City.
Vietnamese are more than happy to turn a page in their history and eager to associate more closely with the United States, which they view as a defender against the growing threat of Chinese power. Having spent centuries chafing under Chinese domination, and most recently having fought a war against China in 1979, the Vietnamese are eager to assert their independence from their gigantic neighbor.
That danger was highlighted in 2014 when China constructed an offshore oil rig near the Paracel Islands inside of Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Hanoi said that “Chinese ships repeatedly rammed and used water cannons against Hanoi’s patrol vessels in the South China Sea.”
The U.S. should be all means now sell Vietnam the weaponry it needs to defend itself. As Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security noted: “Hanoi’s acquisition of radars, surveillance drones, reconnaissance aircraft and other systems would enhance its maritime domain awareness and its ability to secure its littoral areas.”
But in reaching a realpolitik alliance with Vietnam, the U.S. should not forget the fate of the Vietnamese people that it abandoned in 1975. While freer than it used to be – and, in some ways, less repressive than China (for instance, I could access Twitter and Facebook in Vietnam, but not in China) — Vietnam remains very much a one-party dictatorship.
Vietnam held its version of elections just before Obama’s arrival. As the New York Times revealed, a number of independent candidates tried to run for one of the 500 parliamentary seats that were being “contested.” Every single one of them was disqualified. In other words, democracy in Vietnam means about as much as democracy in Iran: in both cases, it is a stage-managed sham where only “approved” candidates are permitted to run.
Amid the blossoming U.S.-Vietnam alliance, it will be tempting for President Obama to forget the fate of the Vietnamese who hunger for freedom. It will take courage to raise uncomfortable human-rights issues. But it is the right thing to do. President Nixon’s “opening” to China should serve as a reminder of the dangers of trying to create a long-term partnership with an illiberal state. Sometimes it can work but, because Chinese and American interests have diverged so greatly since Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, American-Sino relations remain tense.
The only way to create a truly close and long-lasting alliance between the U.S. and Vietnam — something that is in both parties’ interests — is for Vietnam to gradually become a freer and less despotic place. The U.S. should use its leverage to gently nudge Vietnam in that direction.