Thursday, March 20, 2014

Obama won’t visit Vietnam unless he gets something out of it

A visit from the President of the United States to Vietnam would achieve at least two things for Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung: one, he would be able to stand side by side with Obama; and two, he would be able to present this opportunity as proof that he has a “friend” in the White House.

Obama is expected to travel to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in late April as part of his bid to increase US diplomatic, economic and security arrangements in the Asia-Pacific. There is no indication at this point that he intends to add Vietnam to his schedule, but that could change under the right circumstances.

There are reasons for the president not to unless he forces changes. Prime Minister Dung’s second term in office has been fraught with challenges, including a sluggish economy and a string of scandals involving the country’s large, state-owned enterprises. In a rare display of opposition within the Communist Party, the prime minister faced and survived a confidence vote after being urged to resign.

Despite being elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Dung has done little to assuage international concern over Vietnam’s poor human rights record. The prime minister has presided over a period of increased crackdowns on human rights and political activists, particularly bloggers.

To be seen next to President Obama, at home in Hanoi, would demonstrate the prime minister’s political reach, real or imaginary. Besieged though he might be, he could, at the very least, claim to have secured a visit from a US president – the last being President George W. Bush on Nov. 17, 2006, during Prime Minister Dung’s first term.

In dealing with pressure at home and the volatility of the South China Sea disputes with China, having the president as a “friend” would be a good card to have in one’s pocket in case of an emergency.

A good reason to visit

There are numerous reasons why President Obama would not be inclined to make the long plane ride to Hanoi. In addition to domestic concerns, the crisis in Ukraine/Crimea has proven to be an unnecessary distraction for the White House, to say nothing of the ongoing Syrian civil war, Iran and North Korea nuclear files and, challenges facing the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Perhaps the most pertinent reason, however, is that the President, and by extension the US, will unlikely walk away from the trip with any concrete guarantees from the Vietnamese government. It is all too easy for Hanoi’s leaders to release political prisoners as a gesture of good faith but withhold real human rights reform, a consistent sore spot in US–Vietnam relations.

Nevertheless, a visit to Vietnam would allow Obama to tour the country and meets its people. The goals of the Communist Party do not accurately reflect those of Vietnam’s citizens, and it behooves the president to meet the Vietnamese to better understand their wants and desires.

Additionally, such a trip would provide a rare opportunity for the president to engage with Vietnam’s leaders directly. Although Secretary of State John Kerry has served well as the voice of America’s foreign policy, only President Obama can lend the necessary weight to his country’s vision on the future of US–Vietnam relations.

Yet, it is not Prime Minister Dung with whom President Obama should invest the bulk of his time and energy. With the prime minister’s position within the Communist Party weakened by low confidence, President Obama would be well-advised to engage with the rest of the country’s senior leadership.

Said leaders include, in addition to the prime minister, President Truong Tan Sang, whose rising popularity has come at the expense of Prime Minister Dung’s plummeting approval rating; and Secretary-General of the Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong, whose inclination towards China could be blunted by America’s own charm offensive.

Should President Obama pay Vietnam a visit, he would not come empty handed. Assurances that Vietnam will have a place in the now-stalled Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, and US support for a peaceful and multilateral resolution to the South China Sea disputes should be more than enough to satisfy Vietnam’s leaders.

The question then becomes what Vietnam can offer the US in return.

Short of a guaranteed roadmap to reform, it is difficult to imagine what else the US can demand from Vietnam. However, success need not be measured in tangibles and short-term gains.

Vietnam’s current leadership is conservative – unwilling to reform, hesitant to look beyond the safety net of China, and cautious when dealing with the US – and if President Obama intends to change their minds, he cannot do so from the White House or send Secretary Kerry in his stead. Where, in Vietnam, memories are long and personal relationships matter, President Obama must make the trip and secure America’s place in Vietnam’s future.

With the US pivoting towards Asia-Pacific, a partnership, or at least a cordial relationship, with Hanoi could prove quite beneficial. Conversely, for Hanoi, with China ever a domineering force in Southeast Asia, US–Vietnam relations cannot be taken for granted.


Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and lecturer at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.


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