If Vietnam wishes to be taken seriously, it must reconsider its priorities at home and abroad
The Cold War could be considered the Golden Age for Communist states. This was the period of Khrushchev, Castro, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh, from Latin America to Eastern Europe and the far corners of Southeast Asia.
The United States, NATO, and the West in general served to unify Communists around the world. However, in the end, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, the West and capitalism won out, and with it the decline of communist ideology.
Of course, not all Communists abandoned their parties. China and Vietnam remain in party hands; however, communist ideology has been replaced with "market-oriented socialism," so as to better reap the financial benefits of a capitalist society.
Undoubtedly the modern China and Vietnam are not the countries envisioned by Mao or Ho Chi Minh, certainly not by Karl Marx, especially in the case of China, with its glitzy skyscrapers and ruling elite, in whose few hands holds the greatest concentration of wealth. China is far from an egalitarian, communist paradise. Rather, it, as well as Vietnam, has transformed into an authoritarian state with a love of money, benign insofar as its people toe the line and tread carefully.
Vietnam after the Cold War was in desperate need of a makeover. Poor and isolated from the world, it enacted various economic reforms to invite much-needed foreign investment. Through the late 90s, and especially during the early 2000s, Vietnam became something of a beacon of prosperity in Southeast Asia with its booming economy (only to fall apart during the global recession due to the government's financial mismanagement).
These economic reforms were not independent of other initiatives. Having been closed off from much of the world after the forced unification of the North and South in 1975, Vietnam's foreign policy was aimed at bringing it to the world and the world to it. As stated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Vietnam is a friend and reliable partner of all countries in the international community."
Such a statement, however, should be treated with a fair degree of skepticism.
Vietnam's strategic partnership fallacy
Vietnam has established diplomatic relations with 178 countries. It is a member of the UN, the WTO, ASEAN, and numerous other international organizations. In short, it has joined the international community. Yet, for all its talk of being a friend and reliable partner of all countries, much can be debated on whether Vietnam has a friend and reliable partner in the world.
Vietnam presently boasts strategic partnerships with almost a dozen countries, including the UK, Russia, China, and India; and would like to add France and the US to its list. But history, with its propensity to repeat, has shown that such partnerships are not as reliable as Vietnam would hope. In the end, Vietnam's leaders must ask themselves with regards to these partnerships, "To what end?" What does Vietnam hope to gain? Certainly, it is not an ally.
Strategic partnerships are not alliances between states. They are not mutual defense treaties. Far from it, these arrangements are exactly what they seem: partnerships based on shared, strategic interests. Should these interests diverge, so would the partnership. As such, though Vietnam has many strategic partners, these should not be taken as a measure of how many friends it has in the global community. Friends and partners are two very different things.
Case in point, Vietnam's strategic partnership with China, established in 2008, means little when considering the current South China Sea disputes. Given the divergent interests of both countries on this subject, as well as others, just how effective is their partnership? What is the point? They share borders, a similar government, and little else.
Vietnam has repeatedly turned to the UN and international community to balance against China, and shed light on China's claim to the South China Sea. Moreover, the two countries have sniped at one another on the high seas, and at times leading to loss of life.
If nothing else, the strategic partnership between both countries would have at least improved communications between Vietnam and China; and yet, save for certain formalities, these two are farther apart than they are close. Whatever benefits Vietnam hoped to reap from establishing a strategic partnership with China must have certainly fallen flat.
Beyond China, there is Russia, India, the UK, and, most recently, Thailand and Indonesia, with whom Vietnam has partnerships. For much of the same reasons as China, these partnerships are unlikely to endure when the interests of all parties involved are not aligned. The interests of the UK, Russia, and India are not aligned with Vietnam, nor are they aligned with each other.
To be sure, these partnerships are not empty gestures, but they lack the teeth one might find in bilateral defense treaties. Vietnam has many partners, but it does not have any friends.
To trust and be useful
Vietnam might have joined the international community, but it has not yet joined it. It remains an observer watching from the sidelines. If Vietnam wishes to be a friend and reliable partner of all countries in the international community, it must first establish trust.
Countries align with each other for a variety of reasons. For Anglophone nations (such as the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), these reasons may be shared language and similar customs and culture. Countries may also align over geographic necessity, such NORAD between the US and Canada, in defense of North America. Alliances may also spring over ideology, such as the Cold War. Whatever the reason, however, these alliances have at their foundation a degree of trust and goodwill. It is the expectation that one will help the other in times of need, if not out of loyalty then out of necessity.
For Vietnam, it has neither loyalty to nor the loyalty from other countries, nor is it integral to the well-being of other countries. It is, to be blunt, alone. Vietnam need not be indispensable to the whims of larger powers, but it must prove useful in some fashion, be this through science and technology, finance, or some other field. Vietnam is none of these things, at least not yet.
How, then, can Vietnam establish trust? How can Vietnam make itself useful?
The answer is far from simple, but the first step is fairly straightforward: provide for the people the freedom to experiment with ideas, to help those who fail and encourage, if not reward, those who succeed. The future of Vietnam lies in its people, and at present they are treated by the government as being just another cog in the State's machine. The people's usefulness is limited by the government to the detriment of the state.
If Vietnam wishes to join the international community in a meaningful way, as evidenced by its participation in the UN, then it must provide for the people those shared, basic rights set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is not an impossible challenge. Allow for the Vietnamese people to have a difference of opinion, to exercise their right to disagree. Creativity, after all, stems from disagreement. When something does not work, the creative individual looks for a solution beyond the norm, "outside the box"; however, this creativity is stifled when government suffocates the ability to disagree.
It is difficult for the government to establish deep, meaningful partnerships with other countries when they do not share the same values and beliefs. What does Vietnam look for in the UK, whose laws with respect to its citizens are so different? If Vietnam is simply using the UK to advance some agenda, regardless of the UK's beliefs, what reason does the UK have to help Vietnam? Why should the US enter into partnership with Vietnam when the latter has shown its unwillingness to respect the former's concerns?
That Vietnam is alone in the world should be of great concern to country's leaders. However, they must recognize that doing more of the same will achieve nothing. Vietnam must change, and this change must come from more than paid lip service by the government but concrete action. To the officials in Hanoi: Let the people be.
(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. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel