For Vietnam, an expansionist China has often posed an existential threat. However, while not new in the historical experience of the nation, the nature and scope of the present threat is indeed novel in the experiences of the world’s living population of Vietnamese.
The world has had enough imperialism. What the world needs today are international norms of conduct to which all states are held to account. Absent international norms, we lack a firm footing on which to defend such basic public goods as human rights within countries and freedom of navigation between them. Absent international norms we face chaos, violence, and uncertainty.
Waking up to Threats
A certain lucidity has spread across Vietnam as its people are waking up to the fact that China, its eternal neighbor, is currently being governed by a neo-imperialist state bent on territorial expansion, a state that has shown open disregard for international norms, and a state that is attempting to annex great swathes of territory with an arrogance and self-righteousness that is nothing short of astonishing. For Vietnam’s leadership, Beijing’s conduct means relations between the two countries are in a state of continual crisis. For even those Vietnamese leaders raised on romantic notions of solidarity with China cannot ignore what the ‘good comrades’ to the north are doing.
With Xi Jinping displaying fascistic tendencies at home and increasingly brazen tactics overseas, with the mainland economy hemorrhaging hundreds of billions in liquid capital, the entire world is wondering what is going on in China, who is Xi Jinping, why is he being so aggressive, and what can be done to restore a sense of security to the region that Beijing’s own actions have plunged into a costly and needless arms race. When Xi Jinping states that China and Vietnam have a common destiny, one can only hope that he is either wrong or that the destiny Xi turns out to have has nothing to do with him.
We should not overestimate the good judgment of China’s leadership. Nor should we overestimate the capacity of the mainland population to think critically and independently about their country’s leadership and the wisdom of its conduct. As for the leadership, it is one in which even modestly different views are being systematically annihilated, leaving proto-nationalists free to whip up sentiment for ‘winnable wars’ as a means for imposing an illegitimate regional order. The political situation within China today is nothing short of alarming and is itself a threat to regional stability. Writing from Hong Kong, I do not state this lightly.
One might expect that Beijing has no interest in waging war with Hanoi. Be that as it may, it is obviously intent on achieving illegitimate command over Vietnam’s East Sea and enforcing bogus rules on the sea and in air. The question Vietnam, the region, and the world face is no longer whether to develop a robust response but rather how to do so.
In the world, no country has as much experience coping with China as Vietnam. Yet Hanoi cannot possibly cope with Beijing alone. Moreover, Hanoi’s past practice of repeating that ‘everyone is our friend,’ is an approach that while reasonable in times of peace, is grossly inadequate to the country’s needs at present. It’s common sense that no other national state will be willing to stick its neck out for Vietnam unless either its own national interest is threatened or compromised or the values it and its people hold dear are flouted. While it is natural and sensible for Vietnam to be in closer alignment with the US or Japan or Korea, true support from the states and peoples of those countries will only come when Vietnam itself is seen as worthy of support in the face of Beijing’s actions.
Without international support, Vietnam’s policy of acting like China’s ‘little brother’ is both ineffective and dangerous. The point is not that China is not or cannot be Vietnam’s friend or brother or sister, but that no country should respect, accommodate, and enable a neighborhood bully. No friendship or partnership can be built on bullying. With all the bullying, strategic trust is out the window and trust cannot be had again until Beijing changes its behavior.
But what can Hanoi and Vietnam’s people realistically do? While one might hope that China will democratize or at least reverse its march toward totalitarianism, such hope could very well-be a rather a distant one, as Xi appears to truly covet the position of emperor. What is more likely that Vietnam and its people will face at least several more decades of living alongside an expansionist dictatorship.
Doing nothing or trying little things around the edges is certainly an option. But this has already been tried been tried and failed to provide any meaningful prevention not even slowing down Chinese aggression on the sea-so it’s an proven inefficiency to say the least. To continue to do nothing is in effect continuing to play the role of a ‘little brother,’ continuing to enjoy the patronage and bribes when offered, continuing to smile while being disrespected, and keeping eyes firmly averted from the East Sea.
The possibility that such a future might continue to unfold is real. But to allow it would effectively mean an end to Vietnamese independence and would very likely inflame the same sorts of anti-comprador sentiment that propelled Vietnam’s anti-colonial revolution. What also needs to be recognized is that even if some non-transparent decision or deal may be attractive to some, there is can be no award or “bribe” that would be acceptable. Beijing has already show its intentions and aims and that is to claim all the islands it possibly can and use this to control the entire Southeast Asia Sea.
There is a need for Hanoi to boldly re-calibrate its short, medium, and long-term strategies. The first point to be made is now is a time for action. While Vietnam’s leadership has expressed pride in its rule-by-committee approach to governance, the leadership must nonetheless respond swiftly and ably to threats. One would hope the Politburo and Central Committee are actively seeking the input of the country’s most competent persons. But I worry that it is not.
What Vietnam needs and what the region needs from Vietnam is a strong dose of sensible and open-minded diplomacy, a commitment to project an unflinching combination of good will and principled opposition toward to an aggressive bully of a neighbor, and above all, willingness and courage to tap the country’s greatest but still bridled strength: the eagerness of its people to join the community of democratically legitimated and internationally respected states. Vietnam’s people do not seek a side deal with Beijing and not do they seek to become a new form of vassal state.
Why Domestic Reforms are the Key to Success
Vietnam’s only hope of living and functioning and developing a normal, democratic state is to do what the widely respected but insufficiently appreciated outgoing Minister of Planning and Investment Bui Quang Vinh has suggested: embrace fundamental political reforms. For only a Vietnam that embraces international norms at home can draw support in the international arena. (Ask the Koreans and Taiwanese if they agree.) If Vietnam can democratize in ways and on a pace that its own people decide but do so with the US at arm’s length it can improve the quality of its domestic politics, avoid alarming Beijing, and unite the country’s people in a way not seen before.
The good news is that many millions of Vietnamese share this view. This includes several of the Party’s top leaders, dozens of central committee members, many tens of thousands of party rank and file, and countless citizens within and outside the country. And yet while there is a thirst for change, optimism about the prospects for change are constrained by the sense and reality that the Party’s leadership remains too enthusiastic about outdated ideas.
Vietnam must choose its own political future of course. Still there is near unanimity among Vietnam’s most skilled analysts and foreign friends that the key to unlocking the country’s economic and social potential is greater democracy and pluralism, not less. Properly regulated by a spirit of give and take, pluralism is not a threat, but rather a strength. Pluralism does not mean demonstrations and social unrest. It means real and constructive debate. Demonstrations and social unrest are the result of insufficient pluralism, of frustrated rights, of political sclerosis, of failed democracy. The upcoming National Assembly sessions are a golden opportunity for Vietnam to take bold and courageous steps in this direction. If bold and courageous steps are not taken, “constructive pressure” must be sustained and intensified to advance the cause of meaningful reform.
Vietnamese people within and outside the country are anxious and often angry at what they view to be their country’s non-transparent and weak responses to Beijing’s antics. It is clear to most that Vietnam’s top leaders and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular need to adopt a more open and swift approach in communicating on the international stage and with the broader public. This last point is especially important: for maintaining domestic calm and solidarity on the basis of broad public support for clearly articulated principals will show the world that Vietnam is united. Domestic solidarity is vitally important, but cannot be achieved through slow, closed-door, muddled responses.
Of course it is difficult to imagine a more difficult position that Vietnam’s leadership confronts today. Still, a basic lesson in politics is that you must not – and even not appear to – turn your back onto your constituents and expect them to whole-heartedly support you. Arguably, it is precisely because of Hanoi closed-door and often slow responses that many Vietnamese arrive at the cynical conclusion that the Party places the survival of its political monopoly above all other priorities. I am not so sure this line of reasoning holds.
But I do agree that Vietnam needs a smarter and more multi-faceted approach. It also needs a more professional approach in its communications. “Wooden-tongued” press conferences needs to end. Vietnam, its people, and the world need timely, informative and meaningful information, not some generic news of “unknown-ships (“tàu lạ”) or the endlessly repeated but ultimately boring and unhelpful motto that “Vietnam’s sovereignty is in indisputable.” Simply repeating slogans is not an effective strategy.
A Courageous Path Internationally
The most courageous option in its relations with Beijing would be for Hanoi to demonstrate by carefully chosen words and deeds that it intends to cooperate fully with the United States, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia, and India, with South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia (if they are willing) and with other states to ensure that the Southeast Asian maritime region remains international waters as they always have been and as they always must remain.
If it chooses this path, Hanoi’s diplomacy and communications must be sharper and timelier. Its most senior leaders must take a step back to allow its more junior and cosmopolitan leaders the opportunity to serve their country. To cite just one example, let us ask ourselves who in Vietnam’s politburo can represent Vietnam confidently, competently, and eloquently on an international stage? To me, only one person comes to mind and his father was named Thach. Allow Pham Binh Minh to do his job rather than holding him back for another five years and give other younger and more articulate persons a chance to provide Vietnam the articulate voice it requires on the international stage.
If it is possible to suggest that Vietnam’s crisis of leadership has not yet been fully resolved but to do so in the most polite and constructive way, then that is what is meant to conveyed here. Leadership cannot and should not mean eliminating choice and grooming young members of the Politburo into conservative robots until they can be safely released.
However legitimate Vietnam’s claims are, the objective is not to antagonize Beijing but rather to seek the best of possible outcomes. It seems Hanoi should: Continue to treat the maritime disputes as an international problem, which it is; further expand possibilities and diversity modalities by which the US and other countries may have frequent visits to and use of Vietnam’s military bases by air and sea so that an action by China to hinder access by air or sea to Vietnam by other nations will be viewed as illegitimate; avoiding as much as is possible actions that Beijing can view as actions against it but at the same time not shying away from doing what is within Vietnam’s sovereign right; build up international support of Vietnam’s rights and that of other countries in the Southeast Asian maritime region; and bring Beijing to the international court of justice and to the international tribunal ITLOS – not as an antagonistic action, but because Beijing has left it no choice. Moreover, this is the right choice.
To state that Beijing has understood Vietnam’s weaknesses and has always tried to exploit them is clear. And yet Vietnam’s ‘vanguard party’ has always clung to the illusion of solidarity with China, which it has correctly or incorrectly seen as vital to its own existence. But in accepting Chinese support and embracing deference to Beijing, it has ceded too much. Now is the time to change this habit. Only a truly independent and more democratic Vietnam can live in peace.
Vietnam should reduce its self-created economic reliance on China. While China’s economy is more advanced than Vietnam, Vietnam can still improve its own competitive position by going for a higher quality kind of development based on the establishment and enforcement of higher safety, quality and efficiency standards for all machinery and equipment and other products it imports and exports, much as the US does, for example, in the auto industry. Improved labor standards would help Vietnam’s poor image. Vietnam must also develop reliable alternatives to its current heavy dependence on Chinese goods as inputs to Vietnamese exports and should at any rate eliminate many of the toxic products it imports legally and illegally, such as agricultural inputs. While the future of the TPP agreement in unclear, one expects that a President Clinton or non-Trump Republican will ultimate endorse it and the TPP treaty will provide Vietnam incentives to go for the sort of higher-quality growth outlined above.
A Courageous Path at Home
Vietnam can best strengthen its position abroad by undertaking reforms at home. While Vietnam’s upcoming National Assembly session is intended to confirm the leadership selected by the Party General Secretary it should better be an occasion for the country to wake up to the challenges it faces, because Vietnam cannot afford another five years without political reforms. The Party and the National Assembly in general should avoid silencing dissent and limiting diversity of viewpoints but rather encouraging the expression of constructive ideas in the spirit of democratic debate, civic duty, and love of country.
Vietnamese people must decide on what sort of politics they want. But it would seem clear that politics in Vietnam should no longer be about keeping the public in the dark, about maintaining rigid and undemocratic procedures, or about stating and restating slogans that are so scripted and so ‘correct’ as to be meaningless. Nor should Vietnam’s politics be about silencing dissent and limiting diversity of ideas.
On the contrary, Vietnam needs to find a way of allowing and encouraging competent people in government and civil society to express their ideas, including score of bright and competent people who are continuously accused of conspiring with the “hostile forces” but whom have no history whatsoever of such ties. Vietnam faces critical choices about critical issues and needs a vibrant and open debate. Restricting discussion and debate and the expression of diverse views is enormously damaging and renders statements about democracy farcical at best.
Restricting debate not only limits the pace and scope of much-needed domestic reforms, it also generates wide-spread discontent among Vietnamese and lowers their view of political leaders. In these times, Vietnam needs an empowered citizenry, a free press, and a politics that is more democratic and pluralistic.
There are, of course, many, many things that need to be done militarily, diplomatically, and with respect to communicating a clear message to the world. Yet as we anticipate the election of a new National Assembly, let us not neglect the importance of building trust among the Vietnamese people in their political system. A truly civilized democratic polity shows tolerance and respect for different political views and recognizes that constructive debate with room for disagreement is vitally important and far superior to any fake consensus imposed in the name of discipline and loyalty to an outdated political model.
Thus in the next few months and beyond, instead of devoting energies to achieving the appearance of ideological conformity in the face of a national security emergency, Vietnam, its leaders, and its people can show the world how and why Vietnam respects rights and home and internationally and why it deserves the world’s support at this critical juncture in its history.