Vietnam’s Unearned White House Invitation

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Staff Editor

The White House announced last week that President Obama will be hosting the president of Vietnam, Truong Tan Sang, on his first visit to Washington on July 25. The meeting appears to fall under the U.S. administration’s Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, or Asia Pivot, which is aimed in large part at addressing the rising regional tensions associated with China’s political and economic pressure on its smaller neighbors. While stepping up its dialogue with Beijing, the United States is strengthening ties with allies and other countries in East and Southeast Asia. But unlike most of these partners, Vietnam remains a repressive one-party state and has done little, by way of democratic reform, to earn a presidential invitation.

An important focus of the July 25 talks will be the maritime territorial disputes between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea. The smaller countries in the area are looking to the United States for support in the face of bullying from Beijing, but Vietnam receives the worst ratings of any of these states in Freedom in the World 2013, the most recent edition of Freedom House’s annual global assessment of political rights and civil liberties. It performs only slightly better than China itself.

It is true that the president of Burma—for decades one of the world’s most repressive countries—was invited for a landmark visit to the White House in May, but this came only after key steps toward democracy that included a new constitution, the election of a multiparty parliament, the release of many political prisoners, and a dramatic opening in the media landscape. None of these milestones have been achieved in Vietnam, and it is unclear that the regime has made any decision to pursue them.

Despite growing debate—including within the regime—about the country’s future in light of rampant corruption and deep economic problems, Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party maintains a monopoly on political power. All other parties are outlawed, the traditional media are tightly controlled, and mounting expression of dissent on the internet has been harshly punished, with prominent bloggers facing lengthy prison sentences. The outcomes of their trials are determined by a party-dominated judiciary, and in any case police are empowered to detain suspects without trial on national security grounds.

To encourage democratic reforms, it is essential for the United States to link progress on these issues with any further cooperation on security and trade matters. The White House has pledged to discuss Vietnam’s human rights record during the upcoming presidential visit, but the Obama administration has been unwilling thus far to let such concerns derail military and economic relations.

Indeed, some may ask why the United States should attach any importance to democracy and human rights in Vietnam. Strategically speaking, Washington clearly has an interest in countering China’s territorial bluster in the South China Sea and shoring up smaller states in the region, whether or not they are democratic.

One problem with this approach is that it essentially binds Washington to the current regime in Vietnam, and ignores the desires of the Vietnamese people. The United States has paid dearly for this type of short-sighted diplomacy countless times before.

Another, perhaps more crucial problem is that if the Asia Pivot comes to be seen as a classic balancing effort, with no particular ethical or ideological content, it will play into the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalist narrative, according to which the United States is selfishly conspiring with its allies in the region to encircle and contain China, thwarting its rise as a world power. How else to explain an American embrace of one Communist regime at the apparent expense of another? This in turn will encourage the Chinese people to rally around their authoritarian leaders, despite their many grievances with the party’s rule.

By contrast, if the United States commits itself more vigorously to supporting the democratic aspirations of people across the region, including in both Vietnam and China, its diplomacy will rest on a much stronger foundation—and on the right side of history. Closer military and trade ties will come as rewards for democratic reform, and Washington’s bilateral partnerships will prove increasingly stable and enduring. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party will be hard pressed to portray America as a malevolent force, and compelled to explain to the Chinese people why only they are unfit to govern themselves.

In short, if the Asia Pivot is to escape becoming a simple and potentially self-defeating geopolitical chess move—or, more cynically, a public relations feint designed to distract from neglect and withdrawal in southwestern Asia—it must be about something. The upcoming visit by Vietnam’s president presents an opportunity to fill that void with America’s long-standing democratic values.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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