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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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Vietnam: Where to from here?


Vietnam’s recently concluded Party Congress, which appeared to mark the end of protracted and tense process of leadership succession, is perhaps more appropriately seen as the beginning of a generational shift in the country’s top leadership, rather than an indication of where the country is heading. After a tense and unprecedentedly visible succession process, a mood of anti-climax has quickly settled in. For all the excitement and intrigue it generated, the 12th Party Congress came to an abrupt, air-sucking end.

What happened? Through a mix of procedural means and clever politicking that took many by surprise, sitting Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and his supporters ably short-circuited and, by appearances, effectively ended the political career of the self-styled and now outgoing political maverick, Nguyen Tan Dung. Vietnam’s Prime Minister served two terms, and his period in office generated a mix of high hopes, dashed hopes, raised eyebrows, and resentment. Dung’s period in office saw Vietnam’s growth lose momentum, but then regain that momentum.

Widely labeled a reformer, the outgoing Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s record never squarely fit that characterization. Mostly, Dung was a smooth politician who built up a powerful patronage network and initiated reforms that promoted the interests of well-placed persons and foreign investors, sometimes to the detriment of the country’s economic performance. Dung projected himself as being committed to a more open and democratic Vietnam, while his critics dismissed such a possibility. Be that as it may, Prime Minister’s style and wit led many Vietnamese to see his bid for the Secretary General Position as a bid for a new direction in Vietnamese politics which, though imperfect, would at the very least bring change.

Instead, the opposite has occurred. Had he emerged victorious, Vietnamese state-controlled press would likely be hailing a new day in the country’s politics, much to the chagrin of party conservatives. Today, it is the party conservatives who are smiling, while the state-run press is awash with photos of Nguyen Phu Trong being congratulated by his handpicked clutch of appointees. These include appointees to the key posts of Prime Minister, State President, and President of the National Assembly. By contrast, images of Nguyen Tan Dung have him either standing stoically by or heading for the exits. Never a good look.

So whereto from here? Within Vietnam, in the country’s lively cyberspace, and in the international press, the result of the leadership succession is seen as a vote for continuity within the Party. This is, in many respects, a reasonable conclusion. After all it was Trong, however doctrinaire and ridiculed, who has prevailed. It is he who insisted that he stay on for two more years and it is he who got his wish. As it stands, General Secretary Trong will remain in his position for an additional two years. Still, it unclear who would replace him, or whether the secretary will be able to directly select or otherwise determine his successor. As such, the direction and spirit of Vietnam’s elite politics remains an open question.

There are other signs of continuity. One example in the abundance of public security and party watchdogs in the newly selected Politburo. Notably, Vietnam’s newly anointed state president and symbolic leader hails from the Ministry of Public Security. As for selections to the other top two leadership posts, the positions of Prime Minister and National Assembly President these include, respectively, a rather non-descript bureaucratic from the country’s central region whose appointment is seen in part as a bow to sentiments for regional balance, and a southerner (who is also female) who has a demonstrated competence in social affairs though has yet to distinguish herself otherwise. Perhaps the most important underlying continuity is the organization of the upper tiers of Vietnam’s political system itself. While an outgoing Minister of Planning called for ‘urgent political reforms’ Vietnam will remain a country ruled by committee. In this respect Vietnam differs from virtually every other country in the world.

Nor should we be too fast to assume the leadership succession will lead Vietnam to somehow slow down. In addition to the police and party watchdogs mentioned above, the new politburo has a number of younger, able, and energetic members, representing such key policy areas as finance and foreign affairs, just to name two. Moreover, the broader spirit of Vietnamese politics is, however halting, not one of inaction. The country’s leadership is committed to internationalization and expanding and deepening ties, even as they act to ensure doing so does not threaten the Party’s long-term interests. With all four of Vietnam’s top leaders having visited the US within the last year and with the entire politburo and central committee recognizing the US and an indispensable trading and security partner, it is clear that times have changed, even with a conservative at the helm, and even in the absence of Nguyen Tan Dung.

Most people who know Vietnam believe the country’s economy should be performing better than it has. It is almost certain that the Party’s leadership recognizes this fact and one should not presume that, while the newly selected leadership are not reformers, they will not take at least some tangible steps to shore up weaknesses in the areas of transparency, infrastructure, and skilled workers and so on. Whether the steps taken will be the right steps or effective in their implementation is another question. But Vietnam has a lot going for it. While its state has been weakened by overzealous decentralization and commercialization, Vietnam is a society is dynamic and, one would hope, still full of promise.

What is perhaps most uncertain is how Nguyen Phu Trong, the politburo, the Party Central Committee, and the Vietnamese people will cope with Beijing, and how Beijing itself will conduct itself in the boiling maritime dispute that is rapidly leading to the militarization of the entire region. Nguyen Phu Trong has in the past been someone who has advocated a conciliatory approach toward China. Indeed, it is in Vietnam’s best interest to have as good relations with Beijing as is possible. There is much to gain from good relations and a great deal to loose from bad ones. Yet maintaining neighborly relations has become a huge challenge, even for Trong. Backed into a corner, Vietnamese will defend their country.

So where do we stand? With this selection of leaders, will Vietnam take steps backwards? I would say no. While there are many in Vietnam who are clamoring for change, they increasingly recognize that change by way of reforms is unlikely to come solely or even mainly from the top. Indeed, Vietnam’s people are now politically engaged and are demanding reform and greater transparency, and the state is slowly responding. Vietnam now features a quasi-liberal brand of authoritarianism that, while still tarnished by regular human rights abuses, at the very least allows space for open discussion of social and political issues. Does the country have a bloated security apparatus? Absolutely. And I worry about how that will be reined in.

In the meantime and for the foreseeable future, Vietnam’s economy will continue to grow and is likely to grow rapidly. It is how to maximize the quality of that growth and how to ensure that that growth translates into benefits and opportunities for the Vietnamese people that is the key issue, along with promoting the country’s security and sovereignty. One hopes and expects Vietnam’s leadership grasps these challenges. Let us see how they respond.


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Ok, it’s over, it seems…

By late afternoon yesterday the (seemingly final) results of Vietnam’s protracted leadership succession process became known. Meaning that yesterday’s post (titled “It ain’t over yet, folks”) had a shelf life of four hours! Be that as it may, the final results were not known before then. Whatever has, might, or will be said, the process of elite succession this time around was especially tense and full of twists and turns. Owing to arrival of social and electronic media, it was an unprecedentedly public affair, even if the public remains as excluded as ever.

At any rate, the upper ranks of the Party have made their choice. The ‘new’ crop of state leaders indicate a selection in favor of continuity. The TBT remains in place. The national assembly is to have a new and (hopefully) more interesting leader. The party establishment of Quảng Nam will be pleased. Perhaps fittingly, Vietnam’s new president and symbolic leader hails from the state’s public security wing. While much of Vietnam’s population was awaiting the result, the actual result is just about as anti-climactic as one can image. Keep hope alive! Only 5 years to the 13th Congress! Whoopee! (ps. vẫn còn vài người bảo là còn chưa xong!)

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It ain’t over folks

When it comes to Vietnam’s leadership succession, virtually all of us are in the dark. This includes not only well informed Vietnamese but, indeed, well informed Vietnamese within upper ranks of the party. Too often in the past week, both domestic and foreign observers have fallen prey to the lure of being first to report, and/or the desire for certitude about the results of Vietnam’s leadership succession process. While the desire to know is understandable, there remains no basis for certitude. The process remains undetermined and fluid. It simply ain’t over.

Foreign observers have gotten a particularly confused picture of things, mainly owing to:

(1) their failure to grasp the intricacies, pliability, and weirdness of the official rules governing the Communist Party’s succession process;

(2) their over-reliance on people who don’t know but say they do (the truth his, hardly anyone outside the process truly knows what’s going on, while even those on the inside may not know what’s going on, owing to restriction on communication with each other);

(3) confusion what has been (to be a fair) a confusing mixture of cryptic, quasi-official, and official even statements issued by certain Party officials that have variously turned out to be incomplete, incompletely true, self-serving, or  all of the above; and,

(4) reliance on second- and third-hand accounts of unverifiable claims which, though sometimes appearing to be credible or plausibly credible, cannot be verified. The confusion is hardly surprising.

So where do we stand? Well, by most appearances there does appear to be a grand tussle underway. On the other hand, the world is locked out and it’s near impossible to verify anything. There are reports of intense horsetrading, such this or that faction bringing pressure to bear on individuals and groups for their support with a mix of promises and threats. While the 11th Party Congress concluded with the issuance of a list of new personnel, the 12th congress is now seated and many of its members are demanding a voice. While the sitting party-secretary Nguyen Phu Trong has appeared skillful in using procedural means to block sitting prime-minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s path to power, it now appears Dung’s supporters are mobilizing a spirited rally.

In the mean time, those in charge of the Party’s external relations continue to insist that the process is orderly one and that talk of a fractious process on the outside is nothing more than malicious rumor. Could it be?

Vietnamese cyberspace is on fire, with ‘well-founded rumors’ and leaked documents unleashing wave after wave of intrigue. From external appearances, the Party-controlled press appears to struggling with the task of reporting on all of this. On one day a leading newspaper leads with headlines of a speech at the congress calling for urgent political reforms reforms. On the next day the same paper publishes a litany of fake or suspiciously fervent comments,congratulating the Party’s outgoing 11th congress on getting things right.

But now the 12th congress has taken its seat and there are suggestions that the proverbial rice has not been cooked. All these accounts can’t be right, can they?

So, is Trong likely to ‘win?’ My best answer remains maybe. What I am slightly more certain of is advice that until the dust settles it would be wise to avoid mistaking self-serving factional chatter and even official announcements and press reports as truly indicative of the real state of play. Barring unforeseeable events, we should expect the results to be known toward the end of this week and not before. If I am wrong, so be it.

What is perhaps more useful is to recognize that while the personnel decisions being made do indeed carry major implications, the selection process itself has turned out to a major political development, even if one whose contemporary or historical significance it is too early to know.

Certainly there’s been no shortage of drama. Two leading figures contesting for power. A senior state and party official taking the podium at the congress and calling for comprehensive and urgent political reforms. A Chinese oil platform drilling off the coast. And not least the inauspiciously timed death of turtle linked to a sacred defense of the nation’s sovereignty at the Congress’s outset. And this is only the stuff we actually know. Indeed, if anything is clear, it is that Vietnam’s elite politics today are unscripted. That’s a good thing. Not because it may portend a future of more open and democratic politics. But because you couldn’t invent this stuff (i.e. write such a script) if you tried.


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The Diplomat: Vietnam’s Leadership Succession Struggle

Vietnam’s Leadership Succession Struggle, published in The Diplomat (click here)dip leader

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