Obama’s moral dilemma in Vietnam
By The Hanoist
As the United States deepens strategic ties with Vietnam in response to a rising China, a question now on many minds is how Washington will address Hanoi’s well-documented and continuing human rights abuses. The moral dilemma for the Barack Obama administration is how it can reconcile long-standing US support for democracy and human rights with its current realpolitik aims of winning friends and influencing states concerned by an overbearing Beijing.
These two often contradictory strands of American foreign policy were manifested in the media coverage surrounding Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presentations at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum held in Hanoi in July. Her public remarks before Vietnamese government leaders on upholding human rights dominated the first day’s headline.
On the following day, however, Clinton turned her focus to security matters. Her declaration that the US had a national interest in maintaining an open South China Sea and supported a multilateral solution to the maritime disputes there between China and ASEAN countries became the biggest story out of the ministerial meeting and still reverberates several months later.
United States-Vietnam watchers have witnessed a considerable warming of ties this year. A highly visible sign was the August visit by the super carrier USS Washington off the coast of Danang, not far from the Paracel Islands occupied by China since 1974 but historically part of Vietnam. Substantive cooperation is also underway in pursuing nuclear cooperation, crafting a multilateral free trade agreement, initiating US weapons sales to Vietnam’s military and continuing military-political talks involving both countries’ foreign affairs and defense establishments.
Part of the reason for the tighter rapport is good timing. As the 2010 chair of ASEAN, Vietnam became the public face of the regional grouping just when the Obama administration sought to re-engage with Southeast Asia. US officials have recently collaborated closely with their Vietnamese counterparts to prepare for numerous mid- and high-level meetings. Given Hanoi’s Foreign Ministry’s lack of experience on the international stage, US officials have reportedly played a primary, if not behind-the-scenes, role in coordinating the various US-ASEAN working groups.
The bigger reason, however, is that the US needs Vietnam to contribute toward stiffening ASEAN’s spine, so that the 10-country body can collectively counterbalance China’s regional ambitions. Most of ASEAN’s member states have traditionally pursued an accommodationist policy toward Beijing. With its long history of repelling Chinese invasions, ingrained worries about the Sino threat, and its relative large size within ASEAN, Vietnam is uniquely positioned to rally others in the bloc.
In addition, the US would like to see Vietnam join other countries in the neighborhood – notably India, Australia, Japan and South Korea – to serve as a strategic counterweight to China. Though no US official has publicly said so, the American military also probably covets regular access to Vietnamese ports to project power into the South China Sea, where a third of the world’s maritime trade flows yet which Beijing is increasingly treating as its own lake.
With face time between the leadership of the two countries always a scarce commodity, Obama recently met with Vietnamese state president Nguyen Minh Triet and other ASEAN heads in New York and the US secretaries of State and Defense will be in Hanoi in late October. The worry among some Vietnamese democracy activists is that human rights, an issue where progress was crucial for the US to re-establish normal trade relations and support Vietnam’s bid to accede to the World Trade Organization, are now being relegated to the diplomatic backburner.
There are precedents for expediency. In the fall of 2004, the George W Bush administration blacklisted Vietnam as a ”Country of Particular Concern” over serious violations of religious freedom. Two years later, the State Department removed Vietnam from the designation – not necessarily due to measurable progress on religious freedom – but to pave the way for a cordial Bush visit to Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting held in November 2006.
Human rights advocates say that such real politik calculations are short-sighted since greater political freedom in Vietnam would better suit long-term US economic and security interests in the region. To be sure, human rights has never been an all or nothing focus of US policy, and each US administration since normalization of relations with Hanoi in 1995 has set calibrations differently on the attention given to the issue.
There is a vocal human-rights lobby in congress that serves as a check on each administration’s realist tendencies on foreign policy. Only a day before the US-ASEAN meeting in New York, 10 House members signed a letter calling on Vietnam’s government to release activists from the pro-democracy party Viet Tan. During the summer, a congressional hearing into alleged beatings by police of Catholic worshipers in the Con Dau parish in central Vietnam prompted the US Embassy in Vietnam to conduct an investigation that is still unfolding.
In addition to congressional pressures, non-governmental organizations also shape the debate. US-based rights group Human Rights Watch recently released a report on systemic abuses by security police in Vietnam that detailed numerous cases of political dissidents and ordinary citizens suffering from police brutality and deaths in custody.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung attended a conference marking the 65th anniversary of communist Vietnam’s public security forces at which he called on his audience to crush all opposition political groups that could threaten the Communist Party’s control. The Hanoi leadership is in the midst of preparing for the 11th party congress, where political promotions and government policies will be decided in January 2011. As in the past, the run-up to this conclave has been accompanied by an intensified crackdown on political dissent.
While addressing the UN General Assembly on September 23, Obama gave his strongest statement yet in defense of the virtues of freedom: “Experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty – that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments.” It is against this rhetorical backdrop and an ongoing political crackdown that Obama reaches out to Hanoi.
While US treaty allies have historically tended to be stable democracies, Washington also has a long history of partnering with authoritarian states, though with more mixed results. Obama’s overtures towards Vietnam thus represent a policy risk, one influenced by his government’s larger strategic concerns over China’s rising clout and assertiveness.
The Hanoist writes on Vietnam’s politics and people.