A new breed of diplomat for Vietnam

21 Mar

March 21, 2012

A new breed of diplomat for Vietnam
By The Hanoist

When Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh speaks to international audiences, he usually does so without a translator. At 53 years old, Minh’s relative youth and proficiency in English set him apart from his predecessors.

But he is not unique among his present diplomatic colleagues. Hanoi’s current crop of senior diplomats, appointed following the 11th Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party in January 2011, tend to be younger and more cosmopolitan than the dour communist officials who have historically been the face of the country.

This stylistic change reflects the coming of age of diplomats who studied in top American schools in the 1990s as Vietnam opened up. It also comes at a critical time in the country’s foreign relations. As the second-largest country (after Indonesia) in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Vietnam is increasingly seen as a key player in regional issues.

At the same time, Hanoi is engaged in a web of bilateral security dialogues with the United States, Australia, Japan, Korea, India, France, Great Britain and Russia, all in an unspoken effort to balance against a rising China. Vietnam and other ASEAN states are locked in a sovereignty struggle with China over potentially oil- and gas-rich areas of the South China Sea.

The ability to comfortably converse with foreign counterparts is obviously critical to a diplomat’s effectiveness and perceived image. The official biography of Nguyen Quoc Cuong, Vietnam’s current ambassador to the US, states that he is “fluent in English”. That is a description that could not be applied to previous Vietnamese ambassadors, whose halting English reportedly left audiences sometimes confused.

Like his boss the foreign minister, Cuong is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, one of the leading international relations programs in the US. Le Hoai Trung, the current Vietnamese permanent representative to the United Nations, is another Fletcher graduate. With the prodigious number of Vietnamese government officials who are alumni of the school, one might think a “Fletcher mafia” is calling the shots at Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry.

To understand how far Vietnamese diplomats have come, consider the situation of Le Van Bang, who was caught illegally digging for clams on Long Island, New York, in 1994 while he was ambassador to the United Nations. Bang and his driver ”acted like they didn’t speak English when they were confronted by the harbormaster”, according to the local prosecutor.

Ultimately, no charges were applied when Bang claimed diplomatic immunity. (Bang went on to become the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s first ambassador to the US when Hanoi and Washington normalized relations the following year.)

Rights and security

A key question for Vietnam watchers is how the generational shift underway at the Foreign Ministry might affect policy. Will communist Vietnam become more Western and open to diverse political currents, or will it be even more determined at maintaining the country’s authoritarian status quo?

A test case will be human rights, which is often a point of contention in relations between Vietnam and Western democracies. While Vietnam’s top diplomats rarely divert in public from the party line, they are probably keenly aware of the international repercussions from their government’s poor human-rights record.

Hanoi’s crackdown against political dissent – widely documented by international human rights groups – is perhaps the biggest stumbling block to establishing a strategic relationship between the US and Vietnam. American officials from Senator John McCain to Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell have recently emphasized that Hanoi must improve on human rights before the US can consider selling it military hardware.

America is not alone in highlighting rights in its relations with Vietnam. France reportedly suspended security talks with Vietnam last year following the detention of Pham Minh Hoang, a high-profile blogger with dual French-Vietnamese citizenship. The security discussions are now slated to resume following Hoang’s early release from prison in January.

There are also looming questions about how much high-level influence the Foreign Ministry really wields. Tradeoffs will have to be made as the Hanoi leadership calibrates between closer ties with America, which is a perceived threat to internal security through pressure on human rights, and China, which is a danger to external security as it seeks to dominate the South China Sea. The views of the internationally sensitive Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the inward-looking Ministry of Public Security may diverge on this issue.

Significantly, there are currently no Foreign Ministry representatives on the 14-man Communist Party politburo, the ultimate political power. As one of the two Foreign Ministry officials on the 175-member Communist Party central committee, Pham Binh Minh could conceivably be promoted to the politburo in the near term, but changes in the body’s membership generally only occur at five-yearly party congresses. The next one is not scheduled until 2016. Without a seat at the table, Vietnamese diplomats are still most likely executing rather than deciding foreign policy.

Ironically, Vietnam’s last powerful foreign minister was Nguyen Co Thach, the father of Pham Binh Minh. A member of the politburo and deputy prime minister, Thach served as top diplomat from 1980-1991. Regarded as pro-Soviet and anti-China, Thach was eventually eased out of office after Hanoi and Beijing re-established diplomatic ties after severing relations in the wake of a brief border war in 1979.

Thach’s tenure represented an era when Vietnam was firmly in the Soviet camp. Beginning in 1991, Hanoi pursued a new foreign policy of “friends with everyone” as it sought global integration while remaining one of the world’s last remaining communist states.

That policy has largely run its course and Hanoi now faces the dual challenges of dealing with an ascendant China and Western pressures for political reform. And while Vietnam’s new crop of envoys are more savvy and fluent in the art of diplomacy, they still lack the clout to deliver on their policy preferences at a crucial juncture in the country’s international affairs.

The Hanoist writes on Vietnam’s politics and people.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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