American bull in an Uneasy East Asia

Hanoi-based analyst Nguyen Quang Dy assesses the visit of Donald Trump to East Asia amid regional uncertainties and tensions.

American bull in china shops

Nguyen Quang Dy

As President Donald Trump boarded Air-Force One last week for a presidential escapade to cover five Asian capitals in 11 days (as a record), both insiders and outside observers got nervous watching an American bull coming to china shops. Trump is expected to stick to a prepared script when he delivers his address to the APEC summit, but he is likely to go off-script (and nod off) during some bilateral talks. What could he say or do to reassure nervous Asian leaders, or would he make them even more nervous? Why does he join the ASEAN summit but not the East Asia summit in Manila? Why Ivanka is not coming to Asia with him, and Melania not coming to Vietnam? Why Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook), Tim Cook (of Apple) and Satya Nadella (of Microsoft) are not  his large entourage? Would the longest trip by a US President be successful as expected or just a learning trip?

Troubled background 

After nearly a year in office, the Trump administration is still unable to define a policy for Asia and the South China Sea. It is partly due to internal rifts among factions in the administration, as well as to Trump’s “America First” commitment, thus neglecting Asia (withdrawing from TPP). The confusion with conflicting views means Asian countries receive confusing and conflicting signals about how the US approaches China. While Steve Bannon (chief advisor), Robert Lighthizer (trade representative), and Peter Navarro (trade council director) prefer threatening China with a trade war, Jared Kushner (senior advisor) wants a flexible approach to Beijing, and  John Kelly (chief of staff) thinks China is not a competitor but simply “another power”. Some say the White House has become a center for “adult education”.

Meanwhile, James Mattis (defense secretary) and Rex Tillerson (state secretary) offer a more traditional view of America in Asia based on a US-lead alliance along the line of an “Indo-Pacific framework”. In fact, this vision was originally initiated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (back in 2007) to connect four Asia-Pacific powers (including the US, Japan, India, and Australia). At APEC Summit in Da Nang 2017, Trump has the chance to clarify the new vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” as recommended by his key advisors. McMaster (national security advisor) said, “This trip is a great opportunity to demonstrate America’s, and the Trump administration’s, commitment to the Indo-Pacific”. (What China Wants From Trump, Mira Rapp-Hopper, Foreign Affairs, November 7, 2017).

The aggressive rise of China (both militarily and economically), accompanied by Trump’s “America First”, now threatens regional security and vital interests of smaller states in the South China Sea. This troubled geo-strategic environment is the background for India’s pro-active willingness to “pivot” to East Asia and join the renewed concept of “Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue” (QSD) initiated by Shinzo Abe in 2007. The Japanese were then not ready to support constitutional amendment (article 9) to rearm Japan, and the Australians (under Kevin Rudd) decided to withdraw from the QSD for fear of China’s reaction. But the more they fear China, the further China keeps pushing. China will soon move the giant Tiankong dredger to Paracel islands for continued dredging work, challenging the US and allies.

Recently, as the Trump presidency is weakened by Robert Mueller’s investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 election, Trump is looking for a foreign policy scoop. The Vietnamese are concerned that he is tempted to strike a bargain with China over North Korea at the expense of security in the South China Sea. For long, Beijing keeps pushing Washington for “a new type of great power relations” along the line of “G-2 diplomacy”. In fact, Chinese diplomats have lobbied hard to get access to the inner circle of the presidency through family contacts. Bill Hayton (BBC/Chatham House) commented, “The Trump administration demonstrated that it either does not understand or sufficiently care about the interests of its friends and potential partners in Southeast Asia to protect them against China,” (The Week Donald Trump Lost the South China Sea, Bill Hayton, Foreign Policy, July 31, 2017).

North Korea on his mind

North Korea would be on top of Trump’s mind during his long trip to Asia, especially in Tokyo, Soul, and Beijing. According to Michael Green (CSIS vice president), “one of the key purposes of the trip is to pressurize North Korea”. (Press Briefing on President Trump’s Trip to Asia, CSIS, November 1, 2017). While this pressure is “absolutely essential”, broader American interests in Asia should endure well beyond the on-going Korean missile crisis and the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang. Therefore, it would be a big folly and disaster if Mr. Trump is over obsessed by North Korea’s nuclear threat (as blackmail) and underestimates the larger danger from China and the growing threats in the South China Sea.

There are three basic scenarios for war: The first would be how to defend the US and allies against an attack. The second would be how to preempt North Korea from attacking. The third would be how to prevent war. McMaster has said the US is prepared for war if diplomacy doesn’t work, and Washington has sent three carrier battle groups to the region. But how can Trump articulate this position? Can he talk about a preventive war when Japan and South Korea are not ready to sign on? Now North Korea still pursues the “decoupling” strategy to make the US so scared of a nuclear attack that it will not risk defending Japan and South Korea. This blackmail and brinkmanship game is to keep the US off balance.

Perhaps the key achievement of this trip is for the American President to show up in Asia. People say in Asia the fact that he shows up there would be 80% of success. What exactly he can do is another matter, for much is still in doubt. While in Tokyo, Soul, and Beijing, the focus of discussion would be on the North Korea danger, at APEC Summit in Da Nang, Trump was expected to announce his new vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” (to replace Obama’s Asia Pivot policy). Earlier in Tokyo, Trump was believed to have consulted Shinzo Abe as this concept was his original idea. As people are anxiously waiting for Trump to clarify the new vision, he has failed to explain how his new Indo-Pacific concept is different from Obama’s Asia Pivot, though in the speech he mentioned it many times.

Now, it is still unclear if the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” is a consistent strategy or just a mere slogan. As the White House boss is an unpredictable character, the job of the “axis of adults” is to restrain and persuade him, though depending on which issue at a certain time (like managing the stock exchange). It seems they have not been able to persuade their boss to focus more on China (as the roots) than on North Korea (as the top of the tree) and join the East Asia summit where the South China Sea is discussed. Hopefully, at least, they can persuade Trump to wear the local shirt issued by the host for a photo-op.

At china shops 

In Tokyo where the Asia trip would start, Trump affirmed the role of the US, “No one, no dictator, no regime, and no nation should underestimate ever American resolve”. Trump also affirmed the role of Japan as a “treasured partner” and “crucial ally” of the US. Particularly Trump affirmed the US-Japan alliance and America’s commitment to the “Indo-Pacific region”. Trump at last understood the fundamental need for US-Japan security cooperation, thus the mutual security treaty is “suddenly coming back to life” as a “critical element” of US foreign policy. Trump said, “I believe that there never have been such close bonds”… “The US and Japan are 100% together” and “I am thrilled my first stop was with you”… Finally, in a public display of affection, Abe gave Trump a baseball cap as souvenir, inscribed with something symbolic: “Donald and Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater”.  (Japan Knows How to Pet the Donald, Orville Schell, Foreign Policy, November 7, 2017).

Since Donald Trump was elected, Shinzo Abe has quietly resorted to personal diplomacy to make friend with the most unpredictable president of the US (and connect with the “axis of adults” in the White House). Xi Jinping would try to do more or less the same, though with a different style of diplomacy and for a different motivation. In Beijing, the American real estate king now practicing as the US President would meet the newly crowned Emperor of China. The two heads of state of the most powerful empires of the world seem to be “strange bed fellows” locked in a dangerous “Game of Thrones” for world supremacy, with their ambitious dreams. They would act like the two bif robots of different generations, programmed differently and operated by two different operating systems.

What about Vietnam? Over half a century ago, people of Da Nang were puzzled to welcome the first Americans marines landing on the China beach. This week, people of Da Nang are puzzled again to welcome another invasion of some 10.000 guests landing there for the APEC summit. Some say Dà Nang has experienced two repeated typhoons: the Damrey and the APEC. While the toll of Damrey in central Vietnam is known (with 27 deaths), the result of APEC is not. The APEC summit is like a big circus with 21 players as heads of member states (including 7 super stars) with 39% of global population, 59% of global GDP, and 48% of international trade. Vietnam has joined APEC for 20 years or so, but its economy keeps falling behind. APEC or ASEAN or ODA cannot help if Vietnam fails to execute a comprehensive institutional reform and mobilize its inner strength. At the APEC Summit, TPP-11 (without the US) was in trouble as Canada might turn TPP-11 into TPP-10 (or TPP-0). Given new developments, Vietnam may end up empty-handed without any TPP or EVFTA.

At the APEC summit, Donald Trump is a superstar. Vietnam is the first Southeast Asian nation to welcome him for a state visit. He is the first American president to visit Vietnam during the first year in office. Next year, an American aircraft carrier is expected to visit Cam Ranh (for the first time after the war) as a symbolic gesture of stronger military cooperation and a new sign of Vietnam’s departure from timidity (while still walking the tight rope). As the Philippines (under president Duterte) has pivoted to China, Vietnam has suddenly become the US’s key strategic partner in the region as a “frontline” state against China’s military expansion in the South China Sea. Hopefully, Hanoi’s strategic vision would be well aligned with Washington’s strategic vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region”.  While the Vietnamese should learn from the Japanese in personal diplomacy to win the heart and mind of Trump (and his key advisors), they should not harbor any illusion and forget the expansive lessons of the past. Neither Xi Jinping nor Donald Trump should be taken for granted as a reliable partner. Given the suspicion of a possible US-China “G2” secret deal (over North Korea’s nuke threat), neither Vietnam nor any other claimant in the South China Sea would trust Trump as a reliable mediator (with “special chemistry”) to help solve the conflict of interests there without accommodating China’s unlawful demands, at the expense of their vital interests.

America pivots again 

According to SCIS, there are three basic pillars for the US pivot to Asia. The first was security (such as the “maritime security initiative” to build capabilities). The second pillar was about economics. That was gone when Trump withdrew from TPP without anything to replace it. The third pillar was much more intensive focusing on Southeast Asia, including ASEAN and East Asia Summit. Trump’s absence from the East Asia Summit will go a long way to undercut regional diplomatic momentum. This depends on how much Trump listens. Michael Green said Trump listened to Abe at Mar-a-Lago and he would not rule out that the Trump Administration would come back from this trip and starts refining its Asia policy.

The value of this first trip to Asia is to give the new president a chance to focus on why Asia is so important. Hopefully, this is what Mr Trump is finding out. A couple of weeks ago, State Secretary Rex Tillerson came to CSIS to give a speech. He used the term “predator economics” to refer to the way China is rolling out its ambitious infrastructural plan (for “One Belt One Road” program) with concessional finance undercutting international norms. It is time for the US to develop a strategy to push back what China is trying to do economically.  If  Trump does not return to TPP, he should come up with a new strategy in its place.

According to Michael Green, there are three basic schools of thought in the US administration debating China policy. The first one basically agrees with the “Thucydide’s trap” theory by Graham Allison (including Jared Kushner). The second one believes the US should stick with other key allies and partners as Japan, India, Australia (including Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster). The third one believes the US should deal with China along the line of “great power relations” (G-2). Now, the third one is diminished while the second one prevails, with the foreign policy establishment supporting the Indo-Pacific concept.  Unfortunately, right now the State Department is headed by a lonely chief with few Indians.

Anyway, State Secretary Rex Tillerson spoke of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” as against the Sino-centric order. The US should support Japan to revive the informal regional grouping of four democratic powers (including America, Japan, India, Australia). This concept was proposed by Shinzo Abe in 2007 (but short-lived). The reason for Abe to resort to personal diplomacy to get closer to Trump (and the axis of adults) is his long fear that Washington may be attempted to cut a deal with Beijing for “America first”. (US Allies Fear Trump Will Pull a Nixon in China, Andrew Browne, Wall Street Journal, November 7, 2017).

What should Vietnam do

Now, the Vietnamese have two critical tasks to undertake. First (domestically) Vietnam should focus on a comprehensive institutional reform (in economics, politics, and democratization). The later they do the higher price to pay. Vietnam should not wait and follow China. Sooner or later China must change. By then, it would be too late for Vietnam.  Secondly (externally) Vietnam should support and join a strategic framework (beyond ASEAN) to include key strategic partners sharing collective security interests (in economics, politics, defense). To protect national independence and sovereignty, no member country in ASEAN (or ASEAN itself) is capable of standing up to China on its own (especially in the South China Sea).

To these ends, the Vietnamese should undertake these tasks urgently yet carefully. If reform was delayed and changed too little too late, it would be meaningless. However, if it was done in a rush without due diligence and consideration of objective rules, it would easily fail. The topic of comprehensive institutional reform has been discussed extensively and the frameworks for change have been carefully drafted (as the Report “Vietnam 2035”). Now, we should focus on discussing how to build such a strategic concept of alliance. This informal “de facto” alliance is created for self-defense, not against any other party.

The development of US-Vietnam strategic cooperation has been reflected in the MOU on Bilateral Defense Cooperation (2011), the Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations (2015), and the Joint Statement for Enhancing the Comprehensive Partnership (2017). While most of defense cooperation matters between the US and Vietnam have focused on non-traditional areas, the strategic significance of the comprehensive partnership has been growing, especially on maritime security cooperation in the South China Sea. For example, the “Maritime Security Initiative” has assisted Vietnam to build maritime capabilities. In May 2017, the US transferred to Vietnam the Hamilton-class cutter Morgenthau (renamed CBS-8020) as the largest VCG vessel (3.200 tons), and six high-speed patrol boats. Japan has also transferred to Vietnam Coast Guard (VCG) four DN-2.000 patrol boats (2.500 tons).

As the US-China-Vietnam strategic triangle is more unstable and ASEAN is more polarized by Chinese influence, Vietnam should intensify its strategic cooperation with other powers beyond ASEAN (including America, Japan, India, Australia) as a new Quadrilateral partnership.  During his visit to Vietnam (May 2016) President Obama announced the lifting of the arms ban, thus opening up a new opportunity for enhanced strategic cooperation. During the visits to the US by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (May 2017) and Defense Minister Ngo Xuan Lich (August 2017), both sides reached new agreements on strategic cooperation, including the visit of a USS aircraft carrier to Cam Ranh (in 2018). Therefore, APEC summit 2017 is a good opportunity for President Trump to make new commitments for strategic cooperation in the South China Sea as the basis for a “de facto” US-Vietnam strategic partnership.

End notes

Would APEC Summit 2017 pass as “one night stand” and as a big circus running another show, or be remembered as an important turning point for Vietnam to change? Would Trump be remembered as an American bull in china shops with an “America First” speech, featuring “Indo-Pacific” repetoire (10 times yet without a clear meaning), or as a reliable partner whose contributions would make this country a better place for Vietnamese people and the South China Sea less dangerous as a powder keg? Could the environment in Da Nang (and elsewhere) be improved as a good place to live, so people do not have to migrate and the cute monkeys in Sơn Tra are not extinct? It would be meaningless without refereeing to environmental, human right and South China Sea problems. If these things are not going to happen, APEC and Trump’s “Indo-Pacicfic dream” will be another anecdote to be forgotten soon.

References

  1. 1. Press Briefing on President Trump’s Trip to Asia, CSIS, November 1, 2017
  2. Shinzo Abe’s Strategic Diamond, Rory Medcalf, Diplomat, January 15, 2013
  3. Trump Goes to China, Richard N. Haass, Project Syndicate, November 6, 2017
  4. The Week Donald Trump Lost South China Sea, Bill Hayton, Foreign Policy, July 31, 2017
  5. 5. What China Wants From Trump, Mira Rapp-Hopper, Foreign Affairs, November 7, 2017
  6. Japan Knows How to Pet the Donald, Orville Schell, Foreign Policy, November 7, 2017
  7. US Allies Fear Trump Will Pull a Nixon in China, Andrew Browne, WSJ, November 7, 2017

NQD. November 12, 2017

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Hoàng đế trầm lặng và Frankenstein khổng lồ

Trong bài phân tích, nhà phân tích Nguyễn Quang Dy đề cập những diễn biến gần đây trên chính trường Trung Quốc, nhất đối với TBT Tập Cận Bình. Như thường lệ, những ý kiến thể hiện trong các bài viết đăng tại đây không nhất thiết phản ánh các lựa chọn của riêng tôi và nhằm mục đích thảo luận và tranh luận.  – Jonathan London

Hoàng đế trầm lặng và Frankenstein khổng lồ

Nguyễn Quang Dy

“Trung Quốc là một người khổng lồ đang ngủ. Hãy để cho nó ngủ yên, vì khi thức dậy nó sẽ làm đảo lộn thế giới”.
Napoleon Bonaparte

Đại hội 19 của Đảng Cộng sản Trung Quốc (CCP) đã kết thúc (18-24/10/2017) nhưng dư âm của nó chưa hết. Sự kiên này như một đám mây lớn đang phủ bóng đen ám ảnh người Việt Nam cũng như nhiều quốc gia khác trong khu vực, nhất là trong bối cảnh Donald Trump bắt đầu chuyến đi Châu Á (3/11), sẽ đến Đà Nẵng họp APEC (10/11) và đến Hà Nội thăm “chính thức” (11/11/2017). Chúng ta nên hiểu sự kiện quan trọng này thế nào?

Sự tích Frankenstein

Lời cảnh báo của Napoleon nay đã trở thành sự thật. Trung Quốc đã trỗi dậy và đang làm đảo lộn thế giới. Người Trung Quốc có lý do để trỗi dậy vì lợi ích quốc gia của mình, nhưng đáng tiếc là họ không trỗi dậy “một cách hòa bình” như người Mỹ đã ảo tưởng. Trung Quốc đã trở thành đầu gấu trong khu vực, bắt nạt các nước láng giềng và thách thức vai trò đứng đầu của Mỹ, nhằm biến Biển Đông thành cái ao riêng của họ. (Trung quốc trỗi dậy và suy tàn: Giới hạn của quyền lực, Nguyễn Quang Dy, Viet-studies, 13/4/2016).

Người ta nói rằng khi sắp chết con người thường nói thật. Trước khi qua đời, cố tổng thống Nixon đã thừa nhận với nhà báo William Safire (New York Times) trong lần phỏng vấn (năm 1994) rằng trong “tuần lễ làm thay đổi thế giới” khi Nixon và Kissinger đến Bắc Kinh (năm 1972) để chơi “lá bài Trung Quốc”, Mỹ đã làm thế giới “thay đổi tồi tệ nhất” (changed for the worst). Safire kể lại rằng lúc đó bằng một giọng buồn rầu, Nixon đã nói rằng, “chúng ta có thể đã tạo ra một con một quái vật Frankenstein” (we may have created a Frankenstein). (The Biggest Vote, William Safire, New York Times, May 18, 2000).

Không phải chỉ có Nixon và Kissinger mà các đời tổng thống Mỹ sau đó cũng góp phần giúp Trung Quốc trỗi dậy thành Freankenstein, bằng chính sách “tham dự một cách xây dựng” (constructive engagement), tức là “phù Trung”. Không phải chỉ có Mỹ mà các đồng minh (như Nhật và Tây Âu) cũng theo chính sách đó. Bây giờ người Mỹ mới nhận ra là Trung Quốc còn nguy hiểm hơn cả Nga, thì đã quá muộn. Cuối đời, Nixon đã thừa nhận sai lầm về Trung Quốc, nhưng Kissinger thì chưa bao giờ tỏ ra ân hận vì đã thỏa thuận với Mao Trạch Đông và Chu Ân Lai để bỏ rơi Đài Loan. Theo Safire, Kissinger còn “bảo hoàng hơn cả vua”. Khi Mao nói với Nixon và Kissinger là Trung Quốc sẽ dùng vũ lực đối với Đài Loan bất cứ lúc nào trong 100 năm tới, thì Kissinger còn tỏ ra ngạc nhiên “sao phải chờ lâu thế?”.

Hoàng đế trầm lặng

Người ta nói rằng Tập Cận Bình là một người trầm lặng và bí hiểm, đã loại trừ được các thế lực chống đối, để thiết lập quyền lực độc tôn, trở thành “Chủ tịch của mọi thứ” (Chairman of everything). Không chỉ con người Tập trầm lặng mà tính độc tài của ông ta cũng trầm lặng, và uy quyền của Tập cũng trầm lặng một cách bí hiểm. Tập Cận Bình có ba mục tiêu lớn. Thứ nhất là biến Trung Quốc thành cường quốc bá chủ thế giới. Thứ hai là củng cố quyền lực cá nhân và tự thần thánh hóa. Thứ ba là kéo dài sự lãnh đạo độc tôn của Đảng.

Sau “Tư tưởng Mao Trạch Đông”, đến “Lý thuyết Đặng Tiểu Bình”, rồi “Ba đại diện của Giang Trạch Dân” và “Phát triển khoa học của Hồ Cẩm Đào”, nay “Tư tưởng Tập Cận Bình về chủ nghĩa xã hội mang đặc sắc Trung Quốc trong thời đại mới” đang đưa Trung Quốc đến với mô hình phong kiến tập quyền. Tập đã xếp mình ngang với Mao Trạch Đông như hoàng đế Trung Hoa, cao hơn cả Đặng Tiểu Bình, Giang Trạch Dân và Hồ Cẩm Đào. Ngày 24/10/2017, “Tư Tưởng Tập Cận Bình” đã được Đại hội 19 ghi vào điều lệ Đảng. Diễn văn dài ba tiếng rưỡi (30.000 từ) của Tập là một bài luận văn đầy tham vọng, do các trợ lý chủ chốt như Vương Hỗ Ninh (Wang Huning) và Đinh Tiết Tường (Ding Xuexiang) dày công soạn thảo. Trong khi Tập Cận Bình đọc bài diễn văn ba tiếng rưỡi thì Donald Trump chỉ cần twit vài dòng. Đó là sự khác biệt về văn hóa chính trị và hệ điều hành (operating systems).

Thắng lợi thứ nhất là Tập khẳng định tầm nhìn của “Tư tưởng Tập Cận Bình” từ chủ nghĩa “tân chuyên chế” (neo-authoritarianism) đến “tân toàn trị” (neo-totalitarianism) và “tân bảo thủ” (neo-conservatism) trong “thời đại mới” khi Mỹ và phương Tây đang khủng hoảng, là cơ hội tốt để Tập áp đặt tư tưởng của mình. Tập không chỉ định người kế thừa (theo tiền lệ), mà để ngỏ khả năng kéo dài thêm một nhiệm kỳ nữa (sau 2022). Thắng lợi thứ hai là Tập đưa hai nhân vật trung thành nhất vào thường vụ Bộ Chinh Trị, giữ hai vị trí then chốt. Một là Lật Chiến Thư (Li Zhanshu) làm chủ tịch quốc hội, Hai là Triệu Lạc Tế (Zhao Leji) làm bí thư Ủy ban Kiểm tra Kỷ luật TƯ (CCDI) thay Vương Kỳ Sơn, phụ trách chống tham nhũng.

Tuy Tập Cận Bình trở thành lãnh đạo có quyền lực lớn nhất Trung Quốc, nhưng có một “nghịch lý về quyền lực” (paradox of power) là khả năng thao túng xã hội Trung Quốc của Đảng Cộng sản đã bị hạn chế rất nhiều so với những ngộ nhận của Tập và những người ủng hộ (cũng như nhiều học giả nước ngoài). Theo Minxin Pei, có hai lý do chính. Thứ nhất là xã hội Trung Quốc đã thay đổi quá nhiều so với thời Mao và Đặng, nên hầu như chẳng còn ai (kể cả đảng viên) thực sự tin vào một học thuyết chính thống. Thứ hai, bản chất kinh tế Trung Quốc đã thay đổi quá nhiều (hơn 60% là tư nhân) nên Đảng không còn ảnh hưởng nhiều đến đời sống của người dân. (The Paradox of Xi’s Power, Minxin Pei, Project Syndicate, Oct 27, 2017).

Thu phục Trung nguyên

Vương Kỳ Sơn là cánh tay phải của Tập Cận Bình, phụ trách chống tham nhũng, có quyền lực xếp thứ hai (sau Tập). Mô hình CCDI (Ủy ban Kiểm tra Kỷ luật TƯ) giống mô hình “Đông Xưởng” của hoàng đế Chu Lệ (Yongle) thời nhà Minh, với quyền lực đáng sợ. Nhưng trái với đồn đoán, Vương Kỳ Sơn đã nghỉ (vì quá tuổi và nguyện vọng cá nhân). Tập phải chấp nhận thực tế đó, tuy ảnh hưởng của Vương còn lớn. Tập có thể cử Vương phụ trách Hội đồng An ninh Quốc gia (NSC), nhưng khả năng đó thấp vì Vương đã rút khỏi Trung Ương. Có lẽ Vương Kỳ Sơn mới là người khôn ngoan và thức thời vì biết nhập thế và xuất thế. Hiện nay, người thân cận nhất với Tập là Lật Chiến Thư. Trong Thường vụ Bộ Chính Trị, Lật xếp thứ ba, nhưng thực chất là người thứ hai (chứ không phải thủ tướng Lý Khắc Cường).

Bốn người còn lại trong Thường vụ Bộ Chính Trị đều tuyên bố trung thành với Tập. Đó là Uông Dương (phó thủ tướng), Hàn Chính (cựu Bí thư Thượng Hải), Vương Hỗ Ninh (nguyên trưởng ban nghiên cứu TƯ, thay Lưu Vân Sơn phụ trách tuyên truyền), Triệu Lạc Tế (nguyên trưởng ban tổ chức TƯ, thay Vương Kỳ Sơn phụ trách chống tham nhũng). Việc Giang Trạch Dân vẫn ngồi ghế Chủ tịch đoàn không phải vì phái Giang còn mạnh (như Đại hội 18) mà đã suy yếu. Tuy Tập vẫn phải thỏa hiệp về cơ cấu Thường vụ Bộ Chính Trị, nhưng trong Bộ Chính trị (25 người) đã có 15 người trung thành với Tập (60%). Với Trần Mẫn Nhĩ (bí thư Trùng Khánh), Thái Kỳ (bí thư Bắc Kinh), Lý Cường (bí thư Thượng Hải), Lý Hy (bí thư Quảng Đông), Đinh Tiết Tường (chánh Văn phòng TƯ), Trần Hy (trưởng ban Tổ Chức TƯ), tướng Trương Hữu Hiệp (phó chủ tịch Quân ủy TƯ), Tập đã chiếm thế thượng phong.

Tuy dư luận lo ngại Tập Cận Bình sẽ ở thêm khóa nữa (sau năm 2022), nhưng một số chuyên gia cho rằng Tập đã lặng lẽ chọn người kế vị là Trần Mẫn Nhĩ (Chen Miner), tuy Trần Mẫn Nhĩ và Hồ Xuân Hoa không lọt vào Thường vụ BCT (như đồn đoán). Liệu Lật Chiến Thư có thể giúp Tập thay đổi hiến pháp để ông ta ở lại thêm một khóa nữa, hay Tập sẽ chọn người kế vị trung thành để tiếp tục kiểm soát quyền lực sau khi từ chức? Chưa biết Tập sẽ chọn Trần Mẫn Nhĩ hay Hồ Xuân Hoa, nhưng ông ta đã có trong tay các lá bài. Việc cử Trần Mẫn Nhĩ làm bí thư Trùng Khánh (thay Tôn Chính Tài) là một tín hiệu. (Xi Jinping Has Quietly Chosen His Own Successor, Andrei Lungu, Foreign Policy, October 20, 2017).

Ngày 15/7/2017, Ủy viên Bộ Chính trị Tôn Chính Tài đã bất ngờ mất chức Bí thư Trùng Khánh, và được thay thế ngay bằng một người trung thành với Tập là Trần Mẫn Nhĩ (nguyên bí thư Quý Châu). Người ta nói Tôn Chính Tài bị ngã ngựa vì là người của phái Giang, đã xung đột với Tập trong một hội nghị ở Bắc Kinh. Sau đó, bí thư Bắc Kinh là Thái Kỳ và Bí thư Quảng Đông là Hồ Xuân Hoa đã lần lượt tuyên bố ủng hộ Tập. 10 ngày sau, Tập Cận Bình tuyên bố điều tra Tôn Chính Tài, và tiến hành họp kín để truyền đạt ý chỉ “4 cái bằng mọi giá”: (1) bằng mọi giá bảo vệ lãnh đạo cấp cao đang ở đầu sóng ngọn gió; (2) bằng mọi giá thanh trừng thế lực phản đối Đảng; (3) bằng mọi giá đối phó với áp lực bên ngoài trước và sau Đại hội 19; (4) bằng mọi giá trấn áp những nhân tố bất ổn định trong nội bộ Đảng. Rõ ràng qua “4 cái bằng mọi giá” Tập muốn phòng ngừa nguy cơ chính biến và giữ ổn định cho Đại hội 19.

Mâu thuẫn và nghịch lý

Vào tháng 3/2017, lần đầu tiên Uông Ngọc Khải (giáo sư Học viện Hành chính Quốc gia) đã lên tiếng bàn về việc Trung Quốc nên thay đổi từ “chế độ chủ tịch quốc gia” sang “chế độ tổng thống”, và cần thiết phải thay đổi toàn diện chế độ chính trị. Tháng 7/2017, Uông Ngọc Khải lại một lần nữa bàn về chế độ tổng thống. Lần này, Uông Ngọc Khải thậm chí còn nói rằng: “Trước khi chuyển sang chế độ tổng thống, cần thiết phải kết thúc chế độ Ủy ban Thường vụ”. Tại sao Tập Cận Bình lại cho phép Uông Ngọc Khải nói về “chế độ tổng thống”?  Không biết đó có phải là ý đồ thực sự của Tập hay chỉ là kế nghi binh, nhưng động thái này hơi giống lời khuyên của La Vũ (con của nguyên soái La Thụy Khanh và bạn thân của Tập).

Trong bài diễn văn dài ba tiếng rưỡi của Tập Cận Bình, có ba điểm quan trọng. Thứ nhất, “Tư tưởng Tập Cận Bình” được nâng lên ngang tầm “Tư tưởng Mao Trạch Đông”. Thứ hai, Tập Cận Bình tự tin khẳng định Trung Quốc đã bước vào “thời đại mới”. Thứ ba, “những mâu thuẫn chính” của Trung Quốc dưới thời Tập Cận Bình được điều chỉnh là mâu thuẫn giữa “đòi hỏi cuộc sống ngày càng cao của nhân dân” với “phát triển chưa hài hòa và mất cân đối”. (China’s Contradictions, Stephen Roach, Project Syndicate, October 23, 2017).

Về kinh tế, có ba mâu thuẫn cơ bản. Thứ nhất là mâu thuẫn giữa vai trò nhà nước và thị trường về phân bổ nguồn lực. Thứ hai là mâu thuẫn giữa cung và cầu. Thứ ba là mâu thuẫn giữa con đường đi (the path) và đích đến (destination). Trung Quốc có thể đang trên con đường tiến đến “thời đại mới” (hay “New Normal”). Nhưng đích đến cuối cùng vẫn còn xa, với nhiều mâu thuẫn cần phải được giải quyết trong quá trình tiến đến cái đích đó.

Trong khi Đặng Tiểu Bình cầm quyền bằng ủy nhiệm, không trực tiếp điều hành nhưng vẫn kiểm soát được quyền lực, thì Tập Cận Bình trực tiếp nắm mọi thứ (chairman of everything). Lúc không có chuyện gì thì không sao, nhưng nếu có chuyện xảy ra là thảm họa. Trong những năm tới là thời kỳ chuyển đổi phức tạp, dễ có nhiều biến động lớn, nên đội ngũ cầm quyền của Tập tuy hùng hậu nhưng chưa đủ đối phó. (Why Chinas Xi might come to regret all that power,  Kerry Brown, South China Morning Post, October 29, 2017).

Tuy quyền lực của Tập Cận Bình lúc này gần như tuyệt đối, nhưng đó là gánh nặng quá lớn cho một lãnh đạo quốc gia. Tập có thể thông minh hơn Trump, nhưng điều đó không đảm bảo một tương lai ổn định cho Trung Quốc. Nếu có chuyện không may xảy ra, thì cả hệ thống quyền lực sẽ như rắn mất đầu, trong khi mọi người đều biết lỗi hệ thống này là do Tập muốn làm “chủ tịch mọi thứ”. Đó là lý do tại sao các triều đại độc tài thường có kết cục gần giống nhau. (China’s New Emperor, Chris Patten, Project Syndicate, Oct 25, 2017).

Chọn kịch bản nào

Trong thời “hậu Mao”, Tập Cận Bình nay muốn quay lại chế độ độc tài cá nhân. Cải cách tư pháp và sửa đổi hiến pháp hay điều lệ Đảng chỉ nhằm xây dựng một chế độ pháp trị (rule by law) chứ không phải pháp quyền (rule of law). Đó là một bước thụt lùi chứ không phải tiến bộ, nhằm giúp Tập thâu tóm và kéo dài quyền lực tuyệt đối (supremacy) bằng cách trì hoãn chọn người kế tục (năm 2022) để Tập cầm quyền thêm mười năm nữa (đến 2032). Việc thay đổi luật chơi này tiềm ẩn nguy cơ bất ổn do đấu tranh quyền lực vẫn tiếp diễn. Tuy hiện nay không ai dám thách thức quyền lực tuyệt đối của Tập, nhưng sự phản kháng ngầm trước tham vọng của Tập sẽ đến từ sự bất mãn của bộ máy hành chính khổng lồ. Vì vậy, tương lai Trung Quốc phụ thuộc nhiều vào chất lượng chính sách mới của Tập có hiệu quả không. (China’s Return to Strongman Rule, Minxin Pei, Foreign Affairs, November 1, 2017).

Theo Fareed Zakaria (CNN) Tập cho rằng Trung Quốc là một siêu cường trong “thời đại mới”, có thể thay thế Mỹ như một sự lựa chọn (alternative) nếu không phải là đối chọi (rival). Trump có ảo tưởng (fantasy) “làm Mỹ vĩ đại trở lại” (make America great again) thì Tập cũng muốn “làm Trung Quốc vĩ đại trở lại” (make China great again). Đó là “Giấc mộng Trung Hoa” (China Dream) của Tập. Nhưng nếu Tập lấy Mao làm hình mẫu (model) thì Trung Quốc có thể trở thành một Bắc Triều Tiên khổng lồ, chứ không giống Mỹ.

Tập Cận Bình kêu gọi Trung Quốc “quán triệt tinh thần Mao Trạch Đông” (embrace the spirit of Mao Zedong) và dành ưu tiên cao nhất cho ý thức hệ. Trung Quốc đứng trước 4 lựa chọn: (1) “Hard Totalitarianism (Toàn trị Cứng) như hiện nay, (2) “Soft Totalitarianism (Toàn trị Mềm) như thời Hồ Cẩm Đào, (3) “Neo-Totalitarianism (Tân Toàn trị) như thời Mao, (4) “Semi-Democratic (Dân chủ Nửa vời) như Singapore. Tập có thể chuyển từ “Hard Totalitarianism” sang “Neo-Totalitarianism”. Nếu Tập định “quay về tương lai” (back to the future) thì đó sẽ là một sai lầm lớn. Vì vậy, David Shambaugh tin rằng “Màn chót” (Endgame) của chế độ Trung Cộng đang đến, và sự sụp đổ có thể xảy ra trong một hai thập kỷ tới. (The Paradox of Xi Jinping: Dr Jerkyll & Mr Hide? Nguyễn Quang Dy, May 17, 2017).

Nhưng Zakaria cho rằng cần làm rõ ba điểm. Thứ nhất về Mao, hiện nay chủ nghĩa Mao chẳng còn nhiều ảnh hưởng. Thứ hai về chính trị, quyền lực của Tập chưa hẳn “độc tôn” vì cơ cấu nhân sự mới không hẳn như vậy. Trong thường vụ BCT, Lý Khắc Cường vẫn là thủ tướng, Uông Dương và Hàn Chính vẫn là người của phái Hồ Cẩm Đào và phái Giang Trạch Dân. Trong khi đó Trần Mẫn Nhĩ là một đồng minh thân cận của Tập (mà một số chuyên gia cho rằng có thể kế thừa Tập) vẫn chưa lọt được vào Thường vụ Bộ Chính Trị (như đồn đoán). Vương Kỳ Sơn là cánh tay phải của Tập, nhưng không còn trong Bộ Chính Trị (như đồn đoán) và ra khỏi cả danh sách Trung Ương. Phải chăng đây là dấu hiệu Tập đang dọn đường để ở lại thêm một khóa nữa, hay là Tập vẫn chưa hẳn độc tôn? Thứ ba là về triển vọng, vẫn chưa rõ Tập sẽ làm gì với quyền lực mới lớn hơn (tuy chưa hẳn tuyệt đối). Nếu Trung Quốc gặp may, Tập Cận Bình sẽ trở thành một nhà “độc tài được khai sáng” (enlightened absolutist) như Lý Quang Diệu. Nếu không may, Tập sẽ trở thành một hoàng đế chuyên quyền (như Mao 2.0). (Xi whizz: look at the emperor’s new clothes, Niall Ferguson, Sunday Times, October 29, 2017).

Thay lời kết

Tuy “chủ nghĩa tân chuyên chế” (neo-authoritarianism) là chủ thuyết được vận dụng thành công từ thập niên 1990 (sau Thiên An Môn), đã được các học giả Mỹ (như Andrew Nathan và David Shambaugh) đánh giá cao là mô hình “chuyên chế có sức sống” (authoritarian resilience), nhưng nay đã hết màu nhiệm, đang biến thể thành “chủ nghĩa tân toàn trị” (neo-totalitarianism) và “chủ nghĩa tân bảo thủ” (neo-conservatism). Vương Hộ Ninh có quyền tự hào về học thuyết mà mình đã từng đề xướng, cũng như vai trò mới trong Thường vụ Bộ Chính Trị dưới triều đại mới của Tập Cận Bình (2.0). Nhưng Vương có thể chứng kiến biến thể của học thuyết đó đang xô đẩy Trung Quốc đến “Màn chót” (Endgame) của trò chơi quyền lực, như David Shambaugh dự báo hay “Hoàng hôn” (Twilight) của chế độ, như Mixin Pei mô tả.

Trong giai đoạn cải cách lần đầu (1.0) Trung Quốc có thể vận dụng kinh nghiệm phát triển theo mô hình thành công của Đài Loan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Hàn Quốc… Nhưng trong giai đoan cải cách lần hai (2.0) thì phép mầu đó không còn hiệu nghiệm. Bài diễn văn dài ba tiếng rưỡi của Tập Cận Bình (như một luận văn tiến sỹ) ẩn chứa nhiều mâu thuẫn và nghịch lý cơ bản. Trung Quốc không thể trở thành siêu cường nếu không chịu cải tổ hệ thống chính trị. Nhưng nếu Tập cải tổ toàn diện chế độ như quy luật phát triển đòi hỏi, thì bóng ma Thiên An Môn và Pháp Luân Công có thể xô đẩy Đảng và chế độ cùng sụp đổ. Tập Cận Bình và Trung Quốc đang mạnh lên, muốn ganh đua với Mỹ, không phải vì bản thân Trung Quốc do cải tổ mạnh lên, mà vì bản thân Mỹ và phương Tây do khủng hoảng thể chế nên yếu đi.

Tập Cận Bình muốn tập trung quyền lực tuyệt đối bằng mọi giá để giữ nguyên trạng (trong nước), trong khi lấn chiếm, bắt nạt các láng giềng, và thách thức vai trò của Mỹ để thay đổi nguyên trạng (tại Biển Đông). Dù dựa vào “Đường Chín đoạn” hay “Tứ Sa” thì tham vọng của Bắc Kinh không hề thay đổi. Sau Đại hội 19, tham vọng bá quyền của họ ngày càng lớn và càng rõ, như nỗi ám ảnh (hay ác mộng) đối với Việt Nam và ASEAN, làm cả thế giới đau đầu. Trong khi đó, giai thoại về “Xi Dada” đang biến thể thành “Xi Whizz”, làm người ta nhớ đến tác phẩm kinh điển về đa nhân cách là “Dr Jekyll & Mr Hide” (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886). Trong khi hoàng đế trầm lặng Tập Cận Bình đang vươn lên ngang tầm với bạo chúa Mao Trạch Đông thì Trung Quốc ngày càng bá đạo và càng giống Frankenstein.

NQD. 3/11/2017

Tham khảo

1. The Biggest Vote, William Safire, New York Times, May 18, 2000.

2. Wang Huning’s Neo-Authoritarian Dream, Jude Blanchette, October 20, 2017)

3. Xi Jinping Has Quietly Chosen His Own Successor, Andrei Lungu, Foreign Policy, October 20, 2017.

4. China’s Contradictions, Stephen Roach, Project Syndicate, October 23, 2017

5. China’s New Emperor, Chris Patten, Project Syndicate, October 25, 2017

6. The Paradox of Xi’s Power, Minxin Pei, Project Syndicate, October 27, 2017

7. Why China’s Xi might come to regret all that power, Kerry Brown, South China Morning Post, October 29, 2017.
8.  Xi whizz: look at the emperor’s new clothes, Niall Ferguson, Sunday Times, October 29, 2017
9. China’s Return to Strongman Rule, Minxin Pei, Foreign Affairs, November 1, 2017

10. The Paradox of Xi Jinping: Dr Jerkyll & Mr Hide? Nguyễn Quang Dy, May 17, 2017

11. Trung quốc trỗi dậy và suy tàn: Giới hạn của quyền lực, Nguyễn Quang Dy, Vietstudies, 13/4/2016).

 

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The Horse Cart and the Bullet Train

In the first essay featured on this page by a contributing author, Hanoi-based analyst Nguyen Quang Dy assesses the status of reform politics in Vietnam. Comments are welcome. As always, the views expressed on this page do not necessarily reflect my own views. JL. 

THE HORSE CART AND THE BULLET TRAIN

Nguyen Quang Dy

“Traditional education always teaches learners about a world that no longer exists…Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics”

Peter Drucker, 1997

Changing the operating system

The bold prediction by Peter Drucker twenty years ago might turn out to be true. The Internet and Internet of Things, together with new achievements in biochemistry and quantum physics, like the bullet train (generation 3.0), is changing the shape of the world.

But Vietnam’s political management system still follows operating system 1.0. Indeed, the Vietnamese are still debating the pros and cons of the “Second Reform” (system 2.0).

Traditional and unconventional thinking are like the Moon and the Sun, and their interface is like the solar or lunar eclipse when the blue Moon can be “eaten by the Bear”. Those who live for too long in the cave would shun the Sun. To free human beings from the cave of ignorance (as Plato said) is a difficult and dangerous process. To integrate with the world, they would have to come out of the cave, but their mindset could still be there.

Let’s take one simple example. Vietnam sent agents to Berlin to abduct Trịnh Xuân Thanh, making Germany indignant over this blatant violation of sovereignty and international law (only seen in cold war action movies) While the Germans behave in the post-cold war era (operating system 2.0), the Vietnamese still behave as during the cold war (operating system 1.0). Vietnam wants to abduct Trinh Xuan Thanh and EVFTA as well?

Given this context, the APEC Summit held in Da Năng in November 2017 faces many challenges and gaps. Vietnam continues to fight “peaceful evolution” and violate international law while it wants to welcome President Trump and US aircraft carrier?

If the Vietnamese do not change their mindset and operating system, how could they integrate with the world and “make friends with all”?

Reasons for falling behind

In the old days, American cowboys in the “Wild West” would be on horseback, chasing the steam engine trains (generation 1.0) at comparative speed. Now, if state managers think they can also use traditional horse carts to chase the bullet trains (generation 3.0) for control, it is ridiculous. If they demand the bullet trains to slow down like the Internet to behave “nicely as expected”, it is absurd. If they want to intercept the bullet trains at local stations for fines, it is an illusion as the bullet trains no longer stop at these stations.

Since the “First Reform” (1.0), Vietnam has started to have market economy, but with “socialist orientation” and gradualism, therefore it is not yet true market economy, but a crippled and distorted market economy. It is a marriage of convenience between primitive capitalism (like wild predators eating each other) and crony socialism (like crocodiles without tears) thus giving birth to “red capitalist” monsters (like Frankenstein), as crony interest groups dressed up in socialist clothes but with a primitive capitalist heart inside.

Japanese Prof Kenichi Ohno (from GRIPS Institute) once said that when he returned to Vietnam after five years, he found his Vietnamese friends still passionately debating the same issues as they did five years ago. If Kenichi Ohno returned to Vietnam 10 years later, he might find the same thing again. If Vietnam fails to change its institutional system and mindset (operating system 1.0), the economy would keep running around with its own economic model of “refusing to change” (as remarked by economist Pham Chi Lan). To escape this vicious circle the present government, which bills itself as a “constructive” government, should provide a breakthrough with comprehensive reforms.

Lessons of the gaps

More than twenty years ago, the Vietnam Program at Harvard KSG conducted research and development of a book edited by Prof David Dapice (On the Dragon’s Trail, David Dapice, 1994), presenting an economic reform agenda for Vietnam.

But when the book was published (after a few years) the situation in Vietnam changed considerably, making some discussion in the book irrelevant. To fill this gap, the Vietnam Program conducted another research project to produce a shorter document on reform (Choosing Success: The lessons of East and Southeast Asia and Vietnam’s Future, Harvard University Press, 2008).

Another example is the report “Vietnam 2035: Toward Prosperity, Criativity, Equity, and Democracy, MPI & World Bank, February 2016). It is an important report recommending a comprehensive reform agenda for Vietnam, with extensive research and development efforts, taking a few years to complete. But by the time the report was published, the reality in Vietnam has changed a great deal. Therefore, without necessary update research, some parts of this important report might be irrelevant to new developments.

No matter how good these reports are, if the state and corporate managers fail to change their mindset and institutional system in response to growing demands of life now changing with puzzling speed, it is like the story of the horse cart chasing the bullet train in vain. The gaps of thinking and operating system and the speed of change may turn the research and management systems into outdated and useless “relics” (Peter Drucker).

A different world

Brexitism in the UK and Trumpism in the US have turned the world upside down, reflecting the demise of globalization and the rise of isolationism, nationalism and populism. The election of Donald Trump was the failure of the mainstream political elite and research community which failed to predict due changes. The power system of the Republican and Democratic Party failed to grasp new developments and respond to angry voters.

In market economy, competition is the rule of development and elimination game. There is an interesting fable. Two hunters who went to the forest, were chased by a big bear, running for their life. After a long while, the first hunter was so tired that he said, “I cannot run faster than the bear”. The second hunter said, “I don’t have to run faster than the bear. I just need to run faster than you”.

In competition, if you are not fast and strong enough, you may get killed by others. Some 200.000 companies (about 30% of the total) bankrupted as “clinical deaths”, perhaps for failing to understand market forces. Many companies survived by state’s bailouts, while only some survived by themselves. But, if they continue to rely on the state without inner strength, they may get killed again by international competition.

While life is changing so fast, the research and management mindset and paradigm change so slowly. As the government starts talking about technological revolution 4.0 (though not really understanding it) some firms in Vietnam already start using robots in place of human workers. If corporate and trade union officials still stick to operating system 1.0, how can they deal with a new generation of workers of artificial intelligence (4.0)?

Paradox and tragedy

Given a closer look, people might realize a sad fact of life that most Vietnamese would harbor extremism as a chronic disease. Extreme communists and anti-communists are very much alike, though they are enemies. As extremists, they would not listen to others for understanding or acceptance of different points of view (inclusive), but they try to reassert themselves and reject others (exclusive). As extremists, they are prejudiced and conservative, leading to confusion and wrong assumptions. This is a dangerous paradox and tragedy.

For many reasons, moderates (and moderate views) are minority, easy to be ostracized and attacked by extremists (from both sides) for being different from them. Moderate supporters of liberal democracy are often accused by extreme communists as “peaceful evolutionary” and “reactionary” while being accused by extreme anti-communists as “communist agents” or “double agents”. In their mind, the extremists would not accept diversity and reconciliation. This is the legacy of violent class struggle and long civil wars.

This incurable disease might have spread as metastasis to other parts of life including research and management. It should be clarified that research is different from propaganda, independent research different from guided research, and professional journalism different from propaganda.

Unfortunately, some people have wrong idea and assumption, using “propaganda activists” to attack researchers and academics. This is not only distorting facts and information (“talking past each other”) but also counter-productive (as “shooting one’s own foot”). Right now, continued propaganda on “peaceful evolution” (mindset 1.0) would unwittingly support the Chinese at the expense of our national interests and foreign policy objectives.

Some end notes

In the final analysis, to change the mindset and institutional system for effective management, people should change their paradigm and ideological perspectives. They should decide whether they want extremism or moderation, conservatism or reform, hatred or reconciliation, violence or non-violence, traditional or unconventional values, authoritarianism or democracy… whether they want brainwashing education for obedient tools of the system or open-mind and liberal education for reform and reconstruction.

Mr Phan Chu Trinh’s revolutionary philosophy (almost a century ago) advocating “people’s enlightenment, higher morale, and livelihood” (Khai dân trí – Chấn dân khí – Hậu dân sinh) still remains an unfulfilled vision, while the national train keeps moving slowly, going off-track, and falling behind.

National power systems and world order have been in crisis. Not only the UK and the US, France and Canada, but also the rest of the world face unpredictable challenges. This is a global political and institutional crisis helping Donald Trump (a business dealer) to beat the Republican and Democratic parties, and helping Emmanuel Macron (an inexperienced politician) to beat the major parties of both the left and the right, to win power.

The world has changed so much and so fast, but the mindset and institutional system have changed so slowly and so little. For a clearer vision, perhaps we should read carefully Moises Naim’s book (The end of Power, Moises Naim, Basic Books, 2013). However, there is little hope that Xi Jinping would soften his ambition in the South China Sea (following the 19th CCP Congress). Even though “the Quiet Emperor” has chosen his successor (Chen Miner), his long shadow is expected to loom large at least for another ten years without a rival (Xi Jinping Has Quietly Chosen His Own Successor, Andre Lungu, Foreign Policy, October 20, 2017). Xi and the “China Dream” is the obsession of not only neighbors but also the rest of the world. But his zenith of power may be the “End Game” in this “Game of Thrones”.

NQD. October 27, 2017

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Re-launching the blog

Dear All,

After several months of inactivity, I am re-launching this page, albeit with a somewhat different format and purpose.

Specifically, in addition to my stuff, I will be publishing original pieces by contributors.
I believe this change will make the page both more lively and interesting.

I intend to undertake similar changes on my Vietnamese language blog, Xin lỗi Ông.

More to follow, but best regards for now.

Jonathan London

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I’ve been inactive as of late… …. but on the occasion of Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc’s trip to Washington I wrote something for the Center for International and Strategic Studies CogitAsia blog… the results are below…


 

The visit to Washington by Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc (it rhymes with book) of Vietnam on May 30-31 will occur amid levels of political tumult not seen in the United States since the Nixon administration and the closing stages of the U.S. war in Vietnam.

In the four decades since, a great deal has changed in Vietnam and in its relations with the United States, particularly in the two decades since the governments of the two countries normalized ties, and especially within the last several years. The significance of Vietnam’s relations with Washington have gained special salience in the context of China’s outsized and illegitimate claims of sovereignty in South China Sea.

Relations improved so much that, by the end of 2016, one could confidently assert that in trade and security matters, Vietnam and the United States had come to view each other as indispensable strategic partners. And then came the U.S. election. As with much of U.S. foreign policy, things today are less certain.

The Vietnamese prime minister’s visit is of great importance, not only for what it portends with respect to the development of U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations and the future prospects of Vietnam’s development, but for what it might tell us about the embattled White House’s intentions with respect to East Asia.

Within the Vietnamese political context, the trip is significant as it represents hard-fought efforts of more reform-minded elements in Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party to reach out to the United States. U.S. authorities would be wise to recognize this reality. While only Vietnam can determine its political path, working with Hanoi in a constructive manner will generate benefits for the future of Vietnam-U.S. relations and for the Vietnamese people.

With respect to the issues, the prime minister’s visit carries implications across three broad areas. First comes trade.

With respect to trade, the challenge is to find a path to “win win” outcomes. Like many countries, the United States is Vietnam’s largest export market. What is striking is the rapidity of growth in Vietnam’s trade with the United States and the growth of its exports in particular.

Today Vietnam exports more to the United States than any other Southeast Asian country. By the end of 2016, trade in goods (not including services) between the two countries had reached $50 billion annually, and it is projected to increase to $80 billion by 2020. Notably, exports to the U.S. account for roughly a quarter of Vietnam’s total exports.

As the American analyst Vu Quang Viet has pointed out, Vietnam’s true export surplus with the United States is overstated in these figures, for the simple but important reason that a large (though not yet determined share) of Vietnam’s exports to the U.S. and other markets are in such items as Samsung cell phones and Intel computer chips, to whose final value Vietnam-based processing adds only 5 to 8 percent. In 2016, customs data report Vietnam exported $42 billion dollars-worth of hand phones and $19 billion in computer equipment. Be that as it may, Vietnam’s trade surplus is a bright shiny figure in some quarters of the U.S. administration.

Given Trump’s disposition toward trade, one might ask why the Vietnamese would wish to even broach the matter. The answer requires a wider lens and, indeed, recognition that the United States and Vietnam have good reason to expand and diversify their trade links.

While one may debate the merits of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Vietnamese government desires to deepen its economic ties with the United States and scores of U.S. firms desire the same. Vietnam’s relatively low costs and other features make it an attractive destination for investors. For Vietnam, U.S. investment holds the promise of boosting employment, infrastructure, and growth.

In the best of outcomes, expanded economic ties could assist Vietnam in avoiding the fate of being just another low-cost, high-pollution, labor-abusing export platform.

Might Washington do good by Vietnam in encouraging the country to move in the right direction by encouraging its government, for example, to forego its plans to construct scores of coal fired plants in favor of projects relying on less polluting technologies, drawing on U.S. technology, investment, and know-how? Or even, perhaps, to make better use of its offshore gas reserves?

A second and no-less important matter is security and, in particular, how Vietnam together with the United States and other countries can promote the realization of an East Asian maritime security environment that conforms to international law. In this area, cooperation between the two countries continues, symbolized by the recent U.S. delivery of coast guard vessels. These efforts should continue.

As much as President Donald Trump enjoys waxing optimistic about Chinese president Xi Jinping’s character, recent signs from Beijing reflect aims that run counter to U.S. interests. The Vietnamese have rightly insisted that peace can only be secured by peaceful and legal means.

Xi’s reported announcement to Philippine’s president Rodrigo Duterte that the oil in the region is “ours” speaks volumes. The United States, Vietnam, and other interested parties need to persuade Beijing to take a more sensible path. Strikingly, there is no country with which Vietnam’s security interests align more closely than with the United States. Given Trump’s penchant for arms deals, there would seem to be scope for cooperation here.

A final, less tangible, and thus easily overlooked aspect of the Vietnamese prime minister’s trip should not be neglected. This concerns Phuc’s uncertain place in Vietnam’s political and economic development and whether and to what extent he becomes a significant force in the country’s development moving forward.

In recent years, the pace of economic reforms in Vietnam has slowed. This has owed not only to habitual reticence of conservatives but equally to the calamitous rise, missteps, and misdeeds of a particular and new breed of Vietnamese political elite who have preached reform and even democracy, but have ruled on the basis of personalistic ties, opaque and irresponsible business practices, and repression. For true reformers, the result has been a “lose lose” situation that has been at once exhausting and dispiriting.

In this context, those committed to real reforms in Vietnam have come dangerously close to being crowded out. Calls for political reforms by prominent members of the Communist Party that had gained certain force in the last few years have been muffled.

Whether by coincidence or plan, the Trump administration’s announcement that it does not assign priority to human rights has been followed by an intensification in the harassment and internment of rights advocates in Vietnam.

While the Communist Party’s ideological guardians have recently called for increased dialogue with dissident voices, an atmosphere of crushing conservatism has prevailed. This, in the view of most observers, is bad news for the future of reforms in Vietnam. In this context, one might ask what good the prime minister’s trip to Washington might hold.

When the prime minister meets Trump he will formally extend an invitation to the president to visit Vietnam on the occasion of the November Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. The meetings will be held in Danang, a stone’s throw from the prime minister’s home town, and the site of the U.S. marines’ landing some 52 years ago.

Not known for his charisma, the prime minister is nonetheless a rare element in Vietnam’s contemporary political elite. While lacking flare and being regrettably soft-spoken with respect to the promotion of rights, he is at least a person with real reform ideas. More importantly, it is he who will listen to what Trump has to say on key issues that concern Vietnam and report back to Vietnam’s collective leadership. As such, one would hope the White House, Congress, and other leaders will speak with a clear and earnest voice and demonstrate their commitment to vigorous bilateral ties.

Only the Vietnamese can decide their future. And yet when Vietnamese citizens express hopes and worries about their country’s future, the matter of Vietnam-U.S. relations is never far from the discussion. When Vietnamese citizens express aspirations for a more pluralistic and democratic politics, a freer press, and a greater respect for human rights they have historically looked to America for direction. When Vietnamese policy makers and business leaders search for ideas, they often draw ideas from U.S. experience. When Vietnam’s growing ranks of professionals search for ways forward in the fields of education, health, and science, they learn from the United States’s successes and failures.

Looking beyond the politics of today, we observe that Vietnam and the United States have a great deal to gain from a strong relationship. In the fields of trade and defense, the two states’ interests closely align. Beyond this, Vietnamese both within and outside the country’s political establishment desire a more democratic, transparent, and rights-based social order. These are or once were, lest we forget, American ideals. At last the American and Vietnamese peoples have something to fight for together. In the interest of a strong relationship that benefits the peoples of both countries, let us hope they succeed.

Dr. Jonathan D. LondonUniversity Lecturer of Global Political Economy – Asia at Leiden University in the Netherlands, is a leading scholar of contemporary Vietnam.

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The call

Regarding Taiwan, barring WWIII it’s not all bad. (Did I just write that?)

Taiwan has the most progressive democratic govt in East Asia and the first democratically elected female head of state in the history of any Chinese society.

Beijing is run by a nasty arrogant thug promoting his own personality cult and bent on expansionism. I understand the context. I study the region. Trump’s nuts. We know that.

Every reasonable Chinese person (I.e. people who respect human rights) respects the democratic achievements of Taiwan, despite its many faults, and are highly critical of Xi, who has zero respect for rights and is (also) a certified megalomaniac.

I have friends who are survivors of Tiananmen and US citizens today and virulently anti Trump who will not be sad about this. Taiwanese will not submit to Beijing until Beijing respects rights. Is Trump still nuts? Of course. Has Xi shown anyone respect? No. Is this dangerous? Not sure, but probably and hopefully not.

JL

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Shocked, not surprised: preliminary throughts on the election result

Trump’s stunning victory and the closeness of the race (Clinton may have won the absolute majority but not the electoral college) will take time to settle in. My initial reaction is that the result reflects five features of contemporary US politics and the campagin for the presidency:

These include: The extreme political polarization of the nation; the profound dissatisfaction of American’s population with the conduct of public policy and the preception and reality that it has not produced improving living standards over three decades; The susceptibility of the US population – in particular, low-educated white voters, but also enough others – to a demagogic message; the declining quality of US political discourse, owing in part to the mass media’s insistance on placing style and ‘look at me!’ tactics over subtsance; and, not least the failed strategy of Hillary Clinton who, rather than delivering a message to all Americans, opted for a strategy that targeted specific groups, ignoring that social class in any country, though perhaps particularly in the US, is as much a cultural as it is an economic phenomenon.

Unfortunately, the cultural features of US politics that have delivered Trump this victory include, as we know observe, racism, anti-intellectualism, sexism, and little respect for democratic institutions. But please be clear: Clinton’s defeat owes not to her being a woman but to her unappealing policies, the perception that she is a disingenuous person, and her failed and excessively narrow electoral strategy.

It is hard to predict what America under Trump will become. It will most likely become more polarized, not only in political terms but also with respect to income and wealth. Racism was one of the big winners in the election. Hopefully it will not prevail.

As for policy, with respect to the domestic economy, conditions for the ultra rich are very likely to improve even beyond what exists today. Obama’s health plan will be vulnerable. Conservative justices will be confirmed for the Supreme Court. Recall that the Republican Party now controls the White House, the House, and the Senate. Indeed, the failure of the Democratic party to offer a vision for most American is striking.

Perhaps the only bright spot for those interested in truly making America great again (minus the racism) is if Trump can follow through on his pledge to invest massively and effectively in infrastructure and other employment generating projects. But we should note that plans for large scale investment sharply contradict the policies and ideology of his party. Perhaps large scale debt-financed undertakings can win political support from interests in both parties in exchange for massive handouts to large construction firms.

As for foreign policy, it is difficult to predict how Trump might conduct himself, particularly with respect to his East Asia policy and Putin. And let us not forget Mexico.

On a personal level, I am deeply unsettled by this outcome, perhaps especially because it appears that Trump,in addition to being a greedy capitalist and a serial abuser of woman, is also very likely a genuine racist and, despite his pronouncemetns, has little regard an equitable economy. Nor does he appear to see geopolitical stability as a major concern. Will his election spell the end of the Post WWII order? Time will tell.

Mostly I am sad for the US. The result says a lot about America, and the things it says are, to me, mostly ugly and dangerous. Let’s see, however, Once agian, time will tell. If the election result was a nasty shock, perhaps Trump’s performance in office will be somehow less nasty than envisaged. Let us all hope so.

JL

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A big day

Tomorrow we will know who will the next President of the United States. As campaigns go, this was surely among the depressing and embarrassing spectacle in living memory. Let us hope we don’t see a similar one anytime soon.

Whatever the causes – economic distress, a dysfunctional and anti-democratic political system, a pliant corporately-controlled mass media, racism, the charismatic appeal of a con artist — it is nonetheless scary that millions of people would vote for a such a monster.

As for the world? This election comes at a time when the post-World War II order appears to be in imminent danger of collapse. Around the world, democratic institutions that have performed poorly are in crisis, while authoritarians smirk.

Personally, I have never been a huge fan of the Clintons. They’ve always been a bit neoliberal for me, fake smiles or not. And yet, given the current state of affairs, globally and in the US, I along with countless others, will feel a huge sense of relief if Clinton prevails.

And if she should lose? Two words:

Brace, Brace!

Spit over your shoulder.

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The ‘debate’

This ‘debate’ was surely among the most embarrassing events in the history of US politics. It was also, among other things, a reminder to the world and to Americans that the strength and quality of democracy in any country cannot be taken for granted; it must be assiduously protected and promoted.

What the American people got, instead, was a cold reminder of the fact that their democracy has been poisoned. The event itself was less a debate than a marathon of angry ranting, mostly from Mr. Trump. For example, the shouting (I will not say discussion) rarely touched on the issues that count most to Americans and to those concerned about America’s future and its future global role.

Trump is unquestionably among the most poorly suited candidates for the presidency in US history (serial liar, molester, racist, slumlord… ). His rise to cusp of the presidency is a reflection of the frustration among large segments of the US population, which is real.

The current state of affairs, and especially the rise of Trump to this point, is also an indictment of the US media, which has utterly and shamefully failed to live up to its responsibilities; they have repeatedly fallen for Trump’s constant stream of lies.

They have failed to act collectively and have produced a public risk (or public bad) because the self-interested economics of contemporary media says that TV ratings and screen views are more important than substance and truth: Better report on the things Trump says — which is frequently a mix of lies and insults that play on racism and economic fears– than bore us with thoughtful and thorough analysis of real issues. This, sadly, is a key feature of political discourse in our commeicalized digital age.

These are two unpopular candidates. Keep in mind that just 14 percent of eligible adults — 9 percent of the whole nation — voted for either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton in the primaries.

While Trump’s claim that the US political and economic system are ‘rigged’ is not entirely wrong, his claim to represent the interests of average Americans is indescribably absurd. Trump’s constant efforts to draw votes from among the supporters of the unsuccessful democratic candidate Bernie Sanders reflects the reality that, among all candidates, it was Sanders’ agenda that was closest to representing the interests of middle and low-income American households. In Clinton and Trump US voters have an unhappy choice of voting for the status quo (Clinton) or the unthinkable (Trump).

Fortunately for America and the planet, it appears Trump’s chances are in decline. While it would be foolish to assume that Clinton will win (anything is possible, especially in this election), Trump has shown the world and Americans what a truly vile person he is.

On the released recording, his were the words of a true sexual predator and one who truly believes he is above the law, whether it comes to paying his income taxes or groping women. It is hard to imagine how many people – especially women and those who respect women – would be comfortable voting for him.

Trump’s main objective in Sunday’s ‘debate’ was to distract American’s from what he truly stands for. In this may have succeeded to a certain extent – mainly by hurling insults in Hillary Clinton’s direction and Clinton’s unrelenting reminders that she often does not mean what she says.

Americans were shocked but not surprised by the Trump sex audio. At the same time Clinton was lucky the sex audio was released when it was, as the leak of her private remarks in paid speeches to special interest groups such as Goldman Sachs were a reminder of a severe shortcoming of Clinton: her tendency to try to hide her embarassingly pro-business views. She is a real Clinton (i.e. big-business) democrat.

Overall, Americans are in a difficult position. They are proud of their country but are angry and ashamed about the state of their politics, as they should be. One can understand logically why certain large groups of poorly informed and naïve Americans were drawn to Trump and his angry nationalism and racism.

Unfortunately for  Trump, he has a hard time concealing what a corrupt, disingenuous, and dangerous person he really is. Ironically, then, it is Trump’s amateurishness and gall and unrelenting megalomania that may save America from his fascism. This shows just how vulnerable America’s democracy has become.

If there is any hope to be had it is in the chance that American will learn from this episode and move toward a politics that more substantively addresses the needs of Americans and the broader international community. If not, we’re all in trouble.

JL

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Show the world

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.

Addressing Threats

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.

JL

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