Time for Vietnam to Reassess its South China Sea Strategy

Published on COGIT Asia, a blog of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on November 2, 2015

Vietnam People's navy BPS-500 class antisubmarine warfare corvette HQ-381. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license.

Vietnam People’s navy BPS-500 antisubmarine warfare corvette HQ-381. Source: Wikimedia, used under a creative commons license

Chinese president Xi Jinping’s visit to Hanoi this week comes at a time when Beijing’s efforts to change the status quo in the South China Sea through the construction of manmade islands has raised tensions across the region. Only Beijing sees the “nine-dash line” it uses to advance its claim to 90 percent of the entire South China Sea as legitimate. Yet, if anything, tensions in the region appear to be on the rise. Be that as it may, the commencement of U.S. patrols aimed at demonstrating the right of ships to travel anywhere in the South China Sea that international law permits, together with an arbitral tribunal’s finding that it has jurisdiction to rule on many of China’s claims, invites all parties, including Vietnam to reassess the broader conflict and attendant opportunities and risks.

The China-based scholar David Arase has recently observed that smaller states such as Vietnam and the Philippines can increase their leverage in the dispute through greater cooperation with each other, greater willingness to exercise legal means in concert to defend international norms, and recognition that selective cooperation and non-cooperation can influence regional politics. Within the context of a big power stalemate, he argues, smaller states can propose cooperative governance schemes that preserve their own rights and promote their interests while also generating benefits for big powers. In light of recent developments, including China’s conduct and Vietnam’s improving relations with the United States and other powers, Hanoi should consider taking a more proactive approach.

Hanoi should specify its territorial claims while undertaking actions to ease remaining disputes with the Philippines (and Malaysia, if necessary), while reaching out to Indonesia. More concretely, Hanoi should consider renouncing its claims on all rocks within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia on two conditions:

  1. These states accept that all small islands under dispute are uninhabitable rocks unless ruled otherwise by international law, and as such are entitled to 12-nautical-mile territorial waters but not EEZs; and
  1. They agree with the principle of sharing resources that lie outside any country’s EEZ and the territorial waters of any of the rocks.

Doing so will narrow the scope of disputes in ways that can facilitate movement toward resolutions based upon principles of international law, while also demonstrating credible commitments to cooperation, sharing, and trust. Vietnamese committed to the notion that all of the Paracels and all of the Spratlys belong to Vietnam should embrace a more realistic, practical, and strategic mind set. If China can relax its current position and embrace these principles, it would be a breakthrough. If not, Vietnam and the other claimants still stand to gain.

Vietnam should also help form a multilateral contact group aimed at reducing and ultimately resolving regional tensions. It can invite Beijing to participate. While the group in question might include members of ASEAN, it should not be organized within ASEAN, whose members with little stake in the dispute. Instead the group should include Southeast Asian claimants together with the United States, Australia, Japan, India, the European Union, and other countries. Formation of the group would be a means toward changing the status quo and altering the political opportunity structure of the wider tensions in ways that might be conducive to the long-term management and resolution of tensions. In the absence of cooperation from Beijing, the ASEAN group should consider joining other nations in the group in patrols.

With the momentum of the arbitration tribunal’s ruling, this group could act in a concerted manner in support of various modalities of arbitration and conflict resolution, taking collective legal actions and other peaceful steps on the basis of international law to protect freedom of navigation and curtail illegal activities based on excessive sovereignty claims. While there are certain risks in forming a bloc outside ASEAN, there is nothing to prevent Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei from adhering to and requesting that China conform to a common set of principles forged under the ASEAN-China working group, or initiating alternative dispute resolution and arbitration mechanisms.

Hanoi should address Beijing more directly and publicly. It has a great chance to do this week, when Xi Jing Ping himself visits Hanoi. Politically, this would be a difficult step forward for Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, whose relations with Beijing have always taken place through back channels, threats, and innuendos. Yet modernizing Vietnam’s relations with China is long overdue and would have the benefit of communicating Hanoi’s intent to resolve the tensions with support from international partners and on the basis of international law.

Specifically, Hanoi should ask if Beijing’s nine-dash line claim refers only to a claim over the islands of the South China Sea, as President Xi implied during his September 25 visit to the White House. A clarification would help identify at least the areas under dispute through a proper interpretation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. While Beijing may not respond, taking this step will be helpful for Hanoi in making its case to relevant international bodies, if necessary. Xi’s recent statement that, “We have the right to uphold our own territorial sovereignty and lawful and legitimate maritime rights and interests,” omits that China’s claims are not founded on international law, which is precisely why Beijing has pursued enforcement of its claims with attempts to change the status quo through brute force and threats.

Beijing and Hanoi have government-to-government committees working on sea disputes as well as an agreement on fundamental principles to settle maritime disputes which specifies that Vietnam will only discuss matters with China bilaterally. Yet Vietnam rightly maintains that outside parties should be involved in multilateral disputes, as is the case with the current tensions. Barring some unforeseen grand bargain, Hanoi is unlikely to bow to Xi’s whims.

Given Vietnam’s history and the particulars of its current circumstances, Hanoi’s pledge never to form an alliance with one country to counteract another makes a certain sense. Vietnam has much to gain from good relations with China. But neither should Hanoi shy away from taking a more active role in shaping the region’s future. Vietnam’s own future is in the balance.

Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor at the City University of Hong Kong. His recent publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam: Party, State, and Authority Relations (Palgrave Macmillan 2014).

Mr. Vu Quang Viet is a U.S,-based analyst. He was formerly Chief of National Accounts Statistics at the UN and served a member of the Advisory Group on Economic and Administrative Reform to Vo Van Kiet, the former prime minister of Vietnam.

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Stop worrying (only) about Nhân sự

Despite seemingly endless speculation about who the Communist Party of Vietnam has elected or will elect or select to lead it over the next five years, the answer for now remains simple: we don’t know. Vietnamese politics remains a black box. With little in the way of real news we are left with various imitations. Last week the country’s supervised press reported that the Politburo and Party Central Committee had assembled to deliberate on key personnel decisions, an opaque but by all impressions tortured exercise that goes under the mundane heading of “personnel,” or “nhân sự.”

And so it goes. Each day, more or less informed analysts within and outside Vietnam put forward guesses about who may rise and who may not, about who may decide to strategically stand down so others may also stand down without losing position or face and so on. With nothing substantive to say or report, journalists and pundits made news of the announcement that for the first time in history, the party had issued fitness criteria for its top posts. Some propose any big changes in “nhân sự” will be delayed a year or more. We are in Kremlinology mode, with occasional flashes of the intriguing and the absurd providing the only relief. Take, for example, the claims of an exiled dissident, that sitting Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, a leading candidate for the post of Party General Secretary, will assume control of Vietnam under a personal dictatorship before disbanding the Party. Vietnam’s Gorby has finally arrived. Other analysts boldly state that Vietnam’s next crop of leaders will be… younger. I am being playful here. Perhaps Dung will deliver Vietnam. That Vietnam’s next crop of leaders will be younger seems certain. As for other speculation, time will tell.

What I would like to propose here is that until the names of the new leadership are announced it may be more useful for us (i.e. those in the world outside the most secretive corners of Ba Dinh district and who care about what’s happening in Vietnam) to take a few steps back and observe the bigger picture.

Stop worrying (so much) about nhân sự. For while Vietnam’s leadership decisions are of a certain significance, it is more important to recognize that Vietnam is at an extraordinary point in its modern history and that decisions about which of the country’s 13 to 20 leading comrades will sit on Politburo are ultimately less important than the tensions, contradictions, limitations, and yes, the opportunities and sense of possibility that animate politics in contemporary Vietnam.

It would seem fair to say that Vietnam has a problem (or, more diplomatically, faces certain challenges) with respect to the efficiency and transparency of its process of elite selection. As it stands it rewards loyalty over competency, procedure over substance, and backward looking secretive conservatism over forward looking, open, deliberative debate. In this context, crafting, promoting, and debating substantive reform proposal and strategies are a better use of political energies than pondering the workings of an outdated system.


Taking three steps back, three features of the present juncture suggest why a focus on what can be done rather than what is being done to bring Vietnam and its people to their rightful place in the international order. First, after decades on the margins, Vietnam has emerged as a strategic if still not fully adept player in East Asia. Failure to significantly enhance its competencies in the fields of domestic governance and international affairs should be seen as the country’s primary risk. Second, Vietnam has embraced and increasingly stands to benefit from internationalization. Internationalization need not be a progressive force. It can, for example, take the form of a more or less skillfully calibrated strategy for maintaining current distributions of power, perpetuating corruption, and cashing in. It may also take the form of a more open-ended and open-access process. Unsurprisingly, both sorts of responses to internationalization are present in Vietnam today. Be that as it may, Vietnam’s integration with the outside would is and will continue to change social and intellectual life in Vietnam. Third, and however seemingly intangible, Vietnam is experiencing unprecedented changes in its political culture owing to the emergence of an increasing varied and spirited intellectual climate. The overconfident and inward-looking style of political elitism that has ruled Vietnam since the 19th Century is no longer tenable.

Let’s consider aspects of each of these points in brief. With respect to Vietnam’s emergence as a strategically important but not ye fully able state, consider the following. However dwarfed by China and otherwise overlooked, Vietnam’s economic growth, the country’s positioning in international economy, and its place uncertain place in the evolving, competitive, at times chaotic and dangerous regional security architecture lend the country a unique importance. To say that Vietnam is strategically important is not to say that it has its house in order. But the primary obstacles to a more prosperous, powerful, and internationally respected Vietnam can easily be addressed through appropriate institutional reforms. The only question is whether they will.

Vietnam’s principal weaknesses lie in the field of economic governance, rights, and foreign affairs. That’s a lot. But it may be less than it seems. The recent signings of the TPP and the (frequently overlooked) European FTA point to continued increases in FDI, expanded access to key markets, and a scaling up of the scale and scope of Vietnam’s involvement in the world economy. Most people who know Vietnam’s economy know that it is under-performing. While World Bank economists tell Vietnam its should be happy with six percent growth in a period of global recession, there is nothing more frustrating to informed Vietnamese than the crystal clear reality that their economy should be performing much better. The TPP and FTA pose a dilemma for Vietnam: Will it choose the road of low-growth, low-efficiency, low-standards capitalism of a sort that enriches select members of the establishment or the more ambitious but entirely attainable role of a more open economic order in which serious decisions about institutional reform, infrastructural upgrading, and investments in national innovation are made? The latter path is unlikely to be chosen in an environment where “nhân sự” is handled like it is today.

With respect to rights, the situation is both grim and hopeful. It is grim if one looks to past and present limitations. It is hopeful in that many in Vietnam’s leadership and a growing number in the state apparatus take the ideal of rights and even human rights seriously. While rights remain weak in Vietnam, awareness of rights and a determination to promote and defend them have grown stronger. Many within the state apparatus are sympathetic. Major hurdles, such as a free press, remain. While one might not expect rapid improvements in rights, one should not dismiss the overwhelming desire among Vietnamese of all backgrounds for a rights-based social order. For a sense of popular views on rights talk to normal Vietnamese. Recognize the privileged teens of the party’s Youth League in their crisp blue shirts and the Nuevo-riche for what they are: lucky.

With respect to international affairs, Vietnam’s outlook must go beyond the expansion of trade and investment and the defense of home turf. Once again, we encounter signs of limitations and possibility. Hanoi’s management of its China relations is especially notable in this respect. Contrary to the sentiments of knee-jerk nationalists, it remains in Hanoi’s objective interests to maintain and promote good and even strong relations with Beijing without compromising the country’s core interests. Today, the number of top Vietnamese leaders willing to speak sentimentally of their country as a “little brother” to China has mercifully declined to a less than a handful. Limitations that remain on Vietnam’s power, influence, and prestige in the international sphere, and its ability to cope with China also bear noting.

The determinants of Vietnam’s international standing have mainly to do with domestic factors. The excessively slow pace of institutional reforms has come at the cost of an unimpressive economic performance. Bold steps by the country’s leadership to respect the Vietnamese people’s desire for a more transparent, pluralistic, and democratic social order will vastly improve public confidence in government and win instant international praise. Before elaborating on this point, it is useful to consider the significance of internationalization.

Within respect to internationalization, and in contrast to China, few members of Vietnam’s ruling class or population continue view internationalization as a threat. True, some see internationalization and principally an opportunity get rich. But beyond this, there is no grand inquisition of foreign ideas in Vietnam. While more “religious” elements of the Communist Party maintain dysfunctional levels of paranoia about outside influences, attitudes about Vietnam’s place in the world have changed even, and perhaps most notably, within the Party. There remain real constraints on international engagement. The party-state continues to mediate Vietnam’s engagement with the rest of the world. Party members must listen to recitations of warnings about Party-security and the continued need to be suspicious of foreign plots, such as “human rights.” But these features of social life in Vietnam tell us more about habits of thought and the bloated numbers of the country’s security personnel (many of whom are fine, smart people who have families and should be devoting their talents to other pursuits) than they do about the the spirit of social life in Vietnam today. Vietnamese desire more, not less, international engagement. And they are getting it.

Third, Vietnam’s political culture is becoming both more pluralistic and democratic. Yes you read right. Granted, the point being made is an impressionistic one. But neither is it romantic delusion. While Party protocol still matters, the vast majority of Vietnamese (including those within the Party state) are keenly aware of the “on stage” vs. “back stage” aspects of politics in their country. For most, state sloganeering is devoid of meaning. It is not that ideas don’t matter. They do. It is rather that meaningless ideas and empty slogans are increasingly recognized for what they are. Vietnamese know that a new crop of prospective leaders is currently competing over positions that will influence the country’s direction. Most would appreciate a more open and transparent process.

But pluralism and democracy you say? Yes. While arrests, beatings, detentions, and all sorts of other nasty behavior remain common, and while genuine political pluralism remains a dream in a country without even an independent press, there can be little question that the thirst for a more transparent and democratic social order is alive and well within Vietnam. Or is it? Some have dismissed Vietnam’s fledgling reform coalition as too weak and meek. A famous and exiled dissident even suggested it members were “cowardly and stupid.” Yes, change requires political courage but it also requires wisdom, timing, political opportunity, and respect for potential allies. In a country where life-chances continue to be mediated by the party and state, and where speaking up leads to getting smacked down, it only makes sense for reform-minded Vietnamese to conceal their preferences or wait for a propitious time. Yes, waiting carries its own risks. And legions of Vietnamese have taken to Facebook and other media to make their views known.

How, then, to initiate system change? History suggests “waiting for the next generation of leaders,” is a less than promising strategy. The recent spectacle of certain risers with the Party tipping over themselves in support of the construction of new and yet larger statues of Ho Chi Minh provides an illustration of both the powers and dangers of political deification. It is also my sense (perhaps I am wrong) that while Vietnamese desire a process of institutional reforms and a more open society they value social order. In commenting on this piece, a fellow Vietnam watcher, David Brown, has usefully suggested to me that that many progressive Vietnamese inside and outside the Party hope for a reform consensus to emerge within the CPV, even though their emphasis tends to be more on economic reforms than civil rights. This is understandable. Many Vietnamese, he notes, fear that change not mediated thru the Party would result in chaos and that fears are not unreasonable, even as they tend to inflate and aggravate the paralyzing effects of residual mid-20th century dread. Do orderly transitions to more open, pluralistic, democratic societies occur? Koreans and Taiwanese would say yes.

Around the 40th anniversary of April 30, 1975 simplistic reports in international news media made much about Vietnam’s economic transformation. “People care about the market, not politics,” the stories read. While in no society do we observe a majority of the population to be politically engaged, such characterizations of Vietnam are off the mark. While survey data on political attitudes are not available, I do not think it is a stretch to assert that majorities of Vietnamese understand that to develop, the country needs breakthroughs in politics as usual. Whether they are right to think so, it seems that most Vietnamese appear either to desire changes to occur within the Party or to believe that only with credible commitments from a significant share of Party members will institutional reforms of the sort discussed above be possible. Spends time in Vietnam and get to know Vietnam I expect you will agree and see that most people support the notion of a more pluralistic and democratic society, even as they disagree about whether and how it might take form.


To acknowledge but not obsess over Vietnam’s arcane leadership struggles permits clearer reflection on obstacles, opportunities, and possibilities for systemic, game-changing reforms. A first step in this direction is to acknowledge that in all countries, powerful groups aim to reproduce, protect, and expand their power base. This simple fact more than any other explains why – in any country – institutional change and systemic reforms are so notoriously difficult to achieve. A second step is to appreciate a corollary principle. Within any system of deeply entrenched rules and compliance procedures, those in lower social strata have few other choices than to do their best in navigating prevailing rules of the game. Like it or not, Vietnam’s current institutions are entrenched and are those within which people must pursue their livelihoods. If one agrees that incremental reforms are not what Vietnam needs what reasons are there, if any, to believe in the likelihood or possibility of real political breakthroughs?

Three factors guard against cynicism. The first of these concern the state of various debates within the highest levels of the party and the increasingly public interest in these debates and their outcomes. While problems with the country’s system of elite selection are obvious, and while public impatience with the politics of stalemate and infighting and its consequences are palpable, there are some hopeful signs with respect to the way some debates within the state apparatus (i.e. the party, state, government, and national assembly) have developed. The big debates within the party remain unresolved, perhaps because they are too big to be bitten off. These hinge on the scope and pace of institutional reforms on the one hand and direction of Vietnam’s relation to the world.

Perhaps there will is greater room for movement in smaller debates. Take, for example, debates on economic affairs. For the last twenty years this area of debate appeared to be largely between those who believe liberalization and the accumulation of individual wealth is perfectly compatible with Leninist rule and those who prefer less liberalization and more talk of socialism with Vietnamese characteristics. In practice, both camps share the aim of nurturing a national bourgeoisie within and subordinate to the Party and State. By contrast, might current debates shift to consider more nuts and bolts questions about how best promote economic opportunity in ways that maximize chances for all Vietnamese? According to some accounts such a debate has already taken form, with a crop of western-trained economists and young business people increasingly engaging with Government (here referring specifically to the government), which has in turn, been increasingly willing to initiate concrete steps to enhance economic governance. Whether and to what extent such changes can filter down to local authorities or affect state management of the economy in general is a large question. Nor should one exaggerate: land grabs and other spectacles remind us of underlying problems. Still, modest improvements in economic governance provide an example of how deliberative debates and state responsiveness to citizens’ concerns can overcome political inaction.

Another area of debate in which there has been certain movement concerns foreign affairs. In attitudes toward Beijing and Washington there has been certain progress. Beijing, which has done an excellent job of alienating Hanoi, has the advantage of massive economic and military might as well as not insignificant influence within certain quarters of the Vietnamese state. While I acknowledge that there are diverse views about “the China question,” China’s influence over Vietnamese politics is in my own view greatly exaggerated. If anything, Beijing has done Vietnam the useful service of investing deeply in the country’s “special relationship” with the United States.

In contrast to the past, there virtual unanimity in Vietnam’s leadership in appreciation of the indispensable strategic importance of the United States. This is a huge change in Vietnamese politics, even as there is no doubt a diversity of view on the meaning and desired scope of this “special relationship” and how it is weighed alongside Vietnam’s “traditional” ties, with countries such as Russia and China. One must also consider the under-reported deepening of relations between Vietnam and such countries as Korea, Japan, India, Singapore, and Australia, to name a few. I do not think I am wrong in my sense that most Vietnamese tend to embrace relations with the US and the countries listed under “warming ties” as opposed to any particular attachment to Mess’s. Xi and Putin. That does not necessarily tell us about the split within the party, where nostalgia for Russian vodka and weapons systems and opportunities to access Chinese capital loom large. Still, thinking about Vietnam’s place in the world has changed and its general direction is unmistakable.


I sense the biggest question in Vietnam today concerns not the country’s leadership selection, the lack of good advice as to how it should approach economic affairs, or a lack of direction in the international arena. The question of today is how Vietnam can breakthrough the stalemates and embark on a process of systemic reforms that will free the country of the clutches of know-nothing conservatism and the politics of patrimonial self-perseveration. While the Vietnamese will determine their own political future, the scope and pace of institutional changes in Vietnam over the next five to ten years will likely depend on whether, how, and to what extent Vietnamese of various walks of life give voice to their vision of the future. Change in the direction of a more prosperous, secure, democratic Vietnam will occur only through a multi-directional process driven by people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives who share in common a love of country and a desire for a more transparent, deliberative, pluralistic, and rights-based social order.

Perceptive analysts claim that real reforms in Vietnam will only occur with a solid reform majority in the party’s Central Committee. Whether such a majority is in the cards is a key question going forward. Accepting even this view, however, reminds us that the most important questions facing Vietnam are not solely who the next Party General Secretary, Prime Minister, State President, and President of the National Assembly will be. There are bigger questions at play both within and outside the party, such as whether or under what conditions reform coalitions might form paving the way for breakthroughs. So, Why not worry about “nhân sự?”

“The right personnel decisions,” as I have been advised, may well be prerequisite for any movement toward real reforms in Vietnam. For the wrong ones promise only to reproduce another generation of competing fiefdoms on an unhealthy foundation of decentralized patrimonial clientelism. So I will modify my earlier point. Don’t worry only about “nhân sự.” Vietnam really does need capable, courageous leadership. But it also needs to consider the opportunities, possibilities, and details of prospective reforms and other steps that can be taken toward a more prosperous, secure, and dignified future.


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Is Vietnam on the Verge of Change?

I was recently invited to write an essay for the journal Current History on theme of 40 years after 30/4/1975. Although a bit rushed (that’s what you get for waiting until the last minute!) I was able to patch something together. Click here on image below to read.

Current history Article

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Some thoughts on Secretary Trong’s visit

I was asked to provide some comments on the significance of Communist Party of Vietnam General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s upcoming White House visit. Here are some preliminary thoughts, with more thoughtful thoughts to follow:

Secretary Trong’s visit is clearly a milestone in Vietnam-US relations. While there has been great emphasis on the visit’s symbolism, particularly given Trong’s status as the party secretary, it is now important to appreciate the very practical and substantive way in which the two countries’ strategic interests are converging across a number of core issues, including trade and investment and regional security.

Former President Clinton’s role, past and present, should not be understated. The fact that the President invited General Secretary Trong to visit his home suggests real efforts are underway (if not a full scale ‘charm offensive’) at deepening mutual understandings between key US the Vietnamese political elites.

Although Vietnam and the United States are both set for leadership changes in the next year, it is clear that the the two states’ short, medium, and long term interests are converging in unprecedented ways. In addition to the TPP and greater security cooperation, one can expect Trong’s visit to add momentum to a process of broadening and deepening of ties and to pave the way for concrete progress on ongoing projects and a host of fresh initiatives across a variety of fields.

If Trong and Hanoi can not just promise but deliver additional progress on rights, relations between the two countries could improve well beyond what is seen as possible today. Trong is not typically regarded as among Vietnam’s visionary leaders. Yet given the broader context, conditions for successful visit are strikingly clear. Whether or not the visit will generate historic breakthroughs remains to be seen.


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Yesterday I attended a conference entitled “40 Years of National Unification and the Cause of Reform, Development, and International Integration of Vietnam.” It was an interesting experience. An academic conversation 39 years and 363 days later.

The conference had two main sessions, one in the morning one in the afternoon; the first addressing the “greatest victory of the 20th century of the Vietnamese people under the leadership of the Party,” the second on the country’s achievements of the last 30 years of reform (yes, 30 years of reform!). What lies ahead for this country of 94 million remains unclear. What is clear is the country has come a very long way in 39 years and 363 days, though perhaps not far enough to comfortably say that it has fully come to terms with its past.IMG_6030 IMG_6037 IMG_6039 IMG_6046

These last statements might be considered controversial and even objectionable among Vietnamese authorities, among whom I have many friends. I say it because while Vietnam has indeed come along way, the traumas of multiple wars and its social and political legacies have yet to be addressed in a manner consistent with the admittedly fuzzy notion of ‘national reconciliation.’ Then again, millions of bombs and deaths across several decades followed by two decades of isolation and a penchant for Leninism will do that to a country.

Listening to the papers yesterday I would say that, by and large, the spirit and content of the discussions were more introspective than 10 years ago. And yet the tendency to embrace a single “correct” narrative clearly remains. Differences are expressed on the margins. At the end of yesterday’s conference a comrade/gentleman from the Police Research Institute gave a brief and well articulated paper festooned with references to ‘political security,’ ‘internal Party security,’ ‘ideological security,’ and so on. Liberation?

Over the past few years I have expressed the view that Vietnam is on a path toward a more open political society. But the thought police are still there in force. My personal hope is that in the ten years between now and the 50th anniversary of the 30th of April 1975, and hopefully much sooner, the Communist Party of Vietnam will at last recognize the benefits of a more open, transparent, and pluralistic political culture; a Vietnam in which ‘internal party security’ is not permitted to douse, stomp on, and stamp out reasoned and open debate.

One reason to be skeptically optimistic is the very strong appetite in Vietnam these days for speech about a “just, democratic, and civilized” Vietnam. I do not think its just talk. But I also am of the view that the sort of political vision and courage needed to put the country on the road to a more comprehensively independent, democratic, and prosperous social order in Vietnam are still lacking. The greatest obstacles to Vietnam’s development really are institutional.

I do not believe the brightest, most forward-looking people in the Communist Party of Vietnam have China or Russia or Singapore in mind for their preferred political and social model. Brighter Vietnamese know that Russia is run by a Mafioso, that Beijing’s expansionism is real, and that Singapore is boring. Nor do I assume they desire America’s bankrolled version of ‘the best democracy money can buy,’ with large swathes of the population left neglected in countless ugly suburbs and burning ghettos.

Social democracy is the most promising path for Vietnam and comes closest to the true aspirations and will of the Vietnamese people. Can social democracy be built in a developing country? Conservatives will say no until someone says no to them.

Whatever Vietnam becomes over the next decades will be the result of political decisions made by the Vietnamese themselves, within and outside the Party. The more deliberative, transparent, and public these decisions are the more confident I will feel about Vietnam’s social, political, and economic future.


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Secretary Trong’s Beijing Adventure

Today I was asked to comment on Vietnamese General Party Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s upcoming trip to Beijing…. I’m no Carl Thayer, but here’s what I had to say:

Trong’s trip is an important opportunity for he and Xi to establish greater clarity on relations between the two states, particularly though by no means only with respect to the East Sea. In the past, Chinese leaders have always seemed to present Vietnam with a combination of “carrots” and “sticks” and there is no reason to expect this to change. At present, China appears intent on using “infrastructure diplomacy” to gain favor with countries across the region and around the world together with provocative displays of military expansion. Xi is also going full steam ahead in efforts to change the status quo by unilateral means, most notably by building up installations in disputed areas.

For Secretary Trong it is an opportunity to state his positions and his views of his own party to China in his own terms and to explore areas of mutual interest in party-to-party relations, ideology, the emerging global situation, and Vietnam’s relations with US in particular. The strategic calculus of the talks will be different this time however, in part owing to China’s aggressive behavior and challenges to Vietnam’s sovereignty and in part owing to the ability and willingness of Vietnam to collaborate with other regional and world actors in promoting its legitimate rights and interests.

As in the past, Trong is likely to hear a combination of seductive offers of assistance and threats of collaborating with “external” powers. Trong’s warm personality and great interest in cultivating stronger ideological ties are likely to result in a public display of friendship and solidarity. Nguyen Phu Trong and the Communist Party of Vietnam recognize the importance of having good and stable relations with China. The Party – and it is hoped Trong, too – also recognize that though China is a large and powerful country, a subordinate relationship based on outdated the principles of “big brother dominates little brother” are not in the best interest of  mutually beneficial relations.

Perhaps not the most nuanced analysis, but my two cents for the moment.


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Getting Rights Right at Vietnam’s Crossroads

Vietnam Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong’s upcoming visit to Washington comes at a critical juncture for Vietnam and a time when a confluence of domestic, regional, and geopolitical factors are giving increasing salience to the importance of expanding and protecting civil and political liberties in the country. The most important step in making the case for human rights in Vietnam is to convince the country’s leadership that better rights will generate significant benefits for Vietnam both domestically and in the international arena.

Weak rights protections are harming Vietnam. Domestically, they are compromising the performance of the country’s political and economic institutions and undermining the party’s legitimacy. Weak rights also harm Vietnam’s international image and damage the country’s prestige at a time when international support is vital.

While there is no use in overstating progress, political and civil freedoms in Vietnam have improved significantly in recent years. These improvements are due to decisions and calculations by party elites and to the determined efforts of a diverse set of rights champions operating within and outside the party itself. Today, the party presides over a country in which political and civic freedoms are being openly discussed and debated, through admittedly more often online than in the public square. Vietnam’s increasingly pluralistic and open political culture should be recognized for what it is: an emerging strength that sets it apart from more repressive regimes like China’s.

As Vietnam’s leading ideologue and the author of such statements as “our regime must never change,” the congenial and soon to retire Trong might strike some as an odd choice to travel to Washington, particularly given the high stakes. But this is Vietnam. A country where party elders must be respected, party conservatives must be placated, and where pantomimed expressions of unity must be performed continuously before statues of the famous patriot Ho Chi Minh, who would no doubt cringe at his contemporary religious deification.

Vietnam’s political leaders have an historic opportunity to improve the country’s economic performance, bolster their legitimacy, and vastly enhance the country’s international standing. To do this they must strike a new balance between the need to protect rights and the need to ensure social order. Three areas deserve particular attention.

Freedom of speech. Vietnamese within and outside the party have found their political voice and they are unlikely to relinquish it. The Internet has emerged as a lively platform for public analysis of official news and has reawakened Vietnam’s rich tradition of social criticism, debate, and intellectual exploration. While party elites bristle at Internet whistle-blowers and despise anti-party haranguing, the Internet nonetheless provides unparalleled opportunities for expression and openness. Arresting and intimidating bloggers and rounding up dissidents under draconian anti-sedition laws will not deliver Vietnam the civilized knowledge-based society its leaders envision or earn the country international respect. Releasing dissidents and protecting the free flow of ideas will.

Freedom of association. The party began as an illegal organization committed to the causes of social justice and national independence. Protecting freedom of association need not be seen as a threat to the party’s survival. Surely a party that traces its heritage to struggles against brutal exploitation on French rubber plantations should recognize that sole reliance on employer-dominated trade unions is likely to place the interests of employers and investors before those of workers. Vietnam’s workers are not revolutionaries. They want decent wages and their basic rights to be respected.

If the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement is successfully negotiated among the 12 member countries, both Vietnamese workers and employers will benefit. By strengthening rights and protection for its workers, Vietnam can attract new investment and build a reputation for social responsibility, distinguishing itself from competitors. Increased freedom for labor unions will likely be required before the U.S. Congress will ratify a TPP agreement that includes Vietnam. But the main reasons for doing this should be to promote the rights and livelihoods of Vietnamese workers and enhance Vietnam’s attractiveness as a destination for foreign investors who take labor rights seriously.

Beyond the shop floor, independent research organizations should be encouraged rather than suppressed. Silencing criticism and dissent is self-defeating. Similarly, permitting peaceful protest under principles of enlightened policing and zero tolerance for unruly behavior should be chosen over arrests, brutality, and intimidation. The appeal of ultra-nationalist and radical groups will decline if ordinary Vietnamese are granted their natural rights to to peacefully demonstrate and petition their government.

Freedom of the press. Absent a substantially independent press, accountability and transparency suffer. When a tiny circulation newspaper reported that a member of the party’s anti-corruption commission had accumulated properties through illegitimate means it was the editor who was pressured to resign. And yet a more independent press is precisely what Vietnam needs if it is to improve state responsiveness and combat and reduce corruption. Policies are needed to promote press freedoms, not suppress them. Reformist members of Vietnam’s political establishment should prevail upon their conservative colleagues to abandon their proposals to further restrict press freedoms.

This year marks 20 years of normalized U.S.-Vietnam relations and 40 years since the conclusion of the two countries’ disastrous war. It also marks the 70th anniversary of Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence, in which Ho Chi Minh famously announced the birth of a free and independent Vietnam. This was followed by the 1946 constitution, which promised freedom of speech, freedom of association, and a free press. Since 1945, Vietnam has travelled a long and difficult path. If Vietnam’s leaders can embrace a real commitment to rights, a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam is well within reach.

Dr. Jonathan D. London is a professor in the Department of Asian & International Studies and Core Member of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong. His publications include Politics in Contemporary Vietnam (2014 Palgrave Macmillan) and the forthcoming Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Vietnam. Follow him on twitter @jdlondon1.

This essay is presently featured on the Asia blog of the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. http://cogitasia.com/getting-rights-right-at-vietnams-crossroads/

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Comments 50 years later

The UK newspaper The Guardian recently asked me for comments on the 50th Anniversary of the US Marine landing at Nam Ô Beach, near Danang.

The article appears here: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/28/vietnam-war-da-nang-50-year-anniversary-flourishing

The author was particularly interested in knowing the meaning of the (US) war in Vietnam for Vietnamese youth, Vietnam’s development, and US-Vietnam relations. Disclosure: I’m not the most informed person on Vietnam-US relations and am not an expert on Vietnam’s youth. But here are my comments in full.

Does the war play much of a role in the lives of the Vietnamese youth or have they moved on?

It plays a significant role in the lives of young people, though it takes on many different forms. Take memories and representations of the war and their meaning. On an individual level, young peoples’ families have been shaped by wars and families’ memories and histories and their salience for young people vary across the country, depending on families’ specific connections to the war and its effects. This is particularly salient in a places like Da Nang, where the fighting and its destructive impacts were most widely and severely felt and where the war was experienced not only as an international war involving a global superpower but also a civil war that divided communities and even families. A lot of that history is subdued. But it’s there. People light incense on family prayer altars to remember those lost in battle, for example. This happens in households in ways that are hidden from view but which carry intimate meanings in ways hard to grasp. Families’ trajectories and their physical and mental health have all been profoundly impacted.

More broadly, young people continuously encounter state-approved and state-managed memories and narratives, which are continuously being transmitted to the young through the education system and through various channels of the state-run media and propaganda apparatus. Young people are not only taught about the war they are taught what to think about it. The officially correct lesson to be drawn is that the war and its outcome remind us of the historical indispensability of the Communist Party’s leadership in freeing the country from external domination and subordination. But once again, we shouldn’t lose sight of the war’s tremendous and lasting destructive impacts, which stunted Vietnam’s development for decades.

 Just how significant has the development of Vietnam been over the last few decades?

As recently as the early 1990s Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in Asia. The country’s development since has been very impressive. Economic growth has permitted rapid improvements in living standards and sharp declines in poverty. Life for the vast majority of Vietnamese is much, much better than in the past. Access to essential services has vastly improved. The country is motorized and internet penetration is among the fastest growing the world. Still, large shares of the population still live under conditions of socioeconomic vulnerability and social inequalities have intensified. The country’s economic growth is set to continue. The real questions are about what the pace of that growth will be and the equability of its outcomes. This will mostly depend on the effectiveness of the government’s economic policies and the success of reform efforts.

How much warmer do you expect Vietnam-US ties to become in the next few years?

I expect US-Vietnam relations to improve rapidly. This year is a particularly important year, not only because of the 40th anniversary but because of the culmination of the TPP talks and the high-level diplomatic talks that are scheduled to take place. Whatever the fate of the TPP, economic ties between the US and Vietnam are likely to improve considerably. Attitudes toward the US among Vietnam’s leadership have evolved swiftly, particularly within the last several ears and especially last year when the reality of China’s efforts to enforce its outsized maritime claims  directly challenged the country’s sovereignty. Enthusiasm for improving and deepening ties with the US remains uneven within the leadership and conservatives remain fixated on the US threat to the Party’s survival. But virtually all members of the leadership recognize the critical importance of further developing US ties, not only for reasons of trade but for national security. Vietnam finds itself in an extraordinarily challenging set of relationships. It needs good relations with both China and with the United States and must also promote its own interests. This is a tall order.

The pace and scope of improvements really depends on the appetite for improvements among Vietnam’s leadership and whether the leadership will be willing and able to live up to its pledges to promote democracy, freedom, and protection of rights, as it has pledged to do.  Any substantial improvements in these areas would permit deep improvements in US ties. On the other hand, continued harassment and imprisonment of dissenters would damage prospects. There’s tremendous potential for US-Vietnam ties. No matter how you look at it, Vietnam and America have a special relationship. I think leaders in both countries and people in Vietnam, perhaps in particular the youth, are keen to make relations with the US special for all the right reasons.

Jonathan D. London

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Nguyễn Bá Thanh

Today word came that Nguyen Ba Thanh, one of Vietnam’s leading political figures, has passed away. The following is based on my own reflections and knowledge of Nguyen Ba Thanh and his significance. It can not be considered to be an authoritative account because I am not deeply familiar with his career nor did I ever meet him in person. I did, however, live in Da Nang and Quang Nam in 1999 and 2000 and have followed those localities’ politics with considerable interest. The following should be taken as my own amateurish attempt at grasping his significance with incomplete information.


Nguyen Ba Thanh (18 April 1953 – 13 February 2015) was a native of Da Nang and among the most important leaders in the city’s history. He was a rare commodity in Vietnamese politics: an entrepreneurial and pragmatic political conservative with a strong record of experimentation and achievement. He will forever be associated with the rapid transformation of Da Nang from a sleepy nondescript post-revolutionary town into a still-quiet but increasingly impressive showcase for large infrastructure projects – especially new roads and bridges – and innovative government reforms. While the city still lacks a distinctive flavor, it’s transformation is remarkable by any standard and residents of the City frequently report high levels of satisfaction with a range of public services, ranging from education to waste management. He was a City leader of national stature.

Nguyen Ba Thanh’s reputation was not without controversy. While his billing as Vietnam’s “Mr. Clean” gained him considerably notoriety and admiration, this characterization was increasingly questioned by critics who took issue with his aggressive tactics in clearing neighborhoods for new infrastructure and allegations that he himself had engaged in corrupt practices. While his achievements in promoting Da Nang’s development have been widely praised and are in respects undeniable, critics have noted that the City’s redevelopment occurred without the creation of public spaces, and with an insignificant industrial base and middling service economy. The city’s famous beaches that have been increasingly enclosed within lucrative joint-venture property developments which, while no doubt contributing to the City’s finances, have generated uncertain contributions to interests of the city’s general population. These criticisms notwithstanding, the native of Da Nang will forever be associated with the city’s development and transformation at the turn of the century.

Da Nang and its neighboring provinces have always occupied an important place in the politics of the Communist Party of Vietnam and Nguyen Ba Thanh’s status as an effective leader made him a natural candidate for ascending to the highest positions within the party. Widely respected among much of the political establishment, Nguyen Ba Thanh’s political ascent nonetheless fell short of expectations when in 2013 he failed to win a seat in the 16-member Politburo. Politically, he will be remembered as an enterprising and unusually effective administrator, which is significant insofar as his achievements have inspired greater openness to experimentation and innovation in public management.

Nguyen Ba Thanh’s reputation as corruption free was challenged toward the end of his career even as he was appointed as Vice-Chair of the Politburo’s anti-Corruption Committee. Notably, his illness and ultimate passing came at a time when Vietnam has been confronted by a fresh wave of allegations of high-level corruption, allegations that are potentially harmful to the Party’s legitimacy and which are fueling renewed calls from within and outside the state for systemic institutional reforms.

As a man of the Party, Nguyen Ba Thanh’s willingness to experiment and his penchant for emphasizing the need for transparent and efficient government will remembered fondly by his many supporters. Among Nguyen Ba Thanh’s most notable qualities was his ability to speak at very great length — sometimes as long as three hours — but in a disarmingly free-wheeling, often persuasive, and consistently playful and humorous way that made his public speeches and pronouncements a spectacle, winning him additional admiration among his fans and begrudging respect among his skeptics. (See the three-hour and seven minute “clip” below.) Nguyen Ba Thanh will be widely remembered across Vietnam.


Photo credit: Nguyentanduung.org

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Vietnam: Open Secrets on the Road to Succession

Happy New year!

It’s been a long while since I’ve posted on this site. But with the New Year I hope and intend to increase my activity and output. Below, please find a link to my recent piece for the Center for International and Strategic Studies (Washington), titled “Open secrets on the road to succession.

cogit photo jan

Best regards,



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