The stakes for Viet Nam

‘Breakthrough talks’ is not the first term that comes to mind when considering the history of Viet Nam – U.S ties. Yet with their meeting this week Viet Nam’s president Truong Tan Sang and US President Barrack Obama have an opportunity of putting ties between the two formerly warring states on a new footing. For Viet Nam, the meeting marks a critical and potentially transformative moment.

Some 38 years after the culmination of one of history’s most disastrous wars, Viet Nam remains relatively poor.  But more than two decades of rapid economic growth has occasioned sharp declines in poverty and significant if uneven improvements in living standards. Contemporary Viet Nam is an industrializing and rapidly urbanizing country struggling to realize its potential. To do so Viet Nam faces three critical sets of challenges. To each of which the US relationship has relevance.

A first set of challenges concerns the economy. Despite its potential, Viet Nam has recently descended into a slow-growth trajectory, the product not only of global recession but also to the country’s ineffectual system of economic governance. In contrast to successful East Asian industrializers, Viet Nam has notably lacked the strong, competent, and relatively autonomous leadership required to promote industrial growth in a coherent, vigorous, and sustained manner. Instead, self-maximizing interest groups within and on the borders of the state have forsaken the national interest for particularistic gains. In this way Viet Nam has developed a chaotic economic order that threatens to undermine future growth.

In the economic sphere Viet Nam needs three things: better infrastructure, a more skilled workforce, and more competent, transparent, and accountable governance. Improved ties with the US cannot itself address these shortcomings. On the other hand, expanded trade with the US will likely spur economic growth and bring potentially significant benefits to average Vietnamese. The prospect of improved US ties might bring new energy to Viet Nam’s lagging economic reforms.  The Communist Party’s insistence’ on a coordinated market-economy need not be an obstacle to developing a more efficient market economy.  But effective economic governance will require a fresh approach, which new economic opportunities and incentives from the US might encourage.

A second set of challenges concerns international affairs. One of the most important if potentially impossible challenges is managing ties with China and the U.S. Unlike the United States, Viet Nam has thousands of years of experience coping with China. Yet China’s rise poses new problems for both Viet Nam and the U.S. On the one hand, China is Viet Nam’s largest trading partner and Hanoi stands much to gain from stable relations and much to loose from unstable ones. On the other hand, Chinese expansionism poses grave threats to Viet Nam’s economic security.

The most obvious of these is China’s claims in the Southeast Asian Sea (a more appropriate term than the ‘South China Sea”).  Weary of leaning too far in either direction, many in Viet Nam’s leadership like to state the importance of forging strategic partnerships with both China and the U.S., which is a noble idea.  Improved ties with the U.S. would likely help Viet Nam contain Beijing’s bullying behaviors, even as the most important step would be US approval of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. To withstand Chinese influence, Viet Nam requires stronger support international arena. Strong ties with the US can help.

A final set of challenges concerns Viet Nam’s politics and indeed its political system. Some have described the current political situation in Viet Nam as a crisis. Indeed, intense intra-party competition over the past several years has produced a more competitive and fluid political scene. Absent the rule of law and accountable institutions, however, Viet Nam’s politics has devolved is a dysfunctional kind of intra-party pluralism in which interest groups’ self-maximizing tendencies have undermined coherent statecraft, sometimes giving the impression of a state adrift.

For the moment, fundamental political reforms remain elusive. But such are probably necessary if Viet Nam is to emerge from its present political and economic malaise. Significant improvements in political rights, the end of arbitrary arrests of regime critics, greater respect for constitutionally guaranteed rights to a free press and freedom of association would likely bring very significant improvements in relations between Hanoi and Washington. Ultimately, the evolution of Viet Nam’s political economy will be decided by politics in Viet Nam itself. Still, the future legitimacy of the Communist Party of Viet Nam cannot be won by repressive means.


A good opportunity, but what will you do with it?

On July 25th Viet Nam’s President Trương Tấn Sang, in principle Viet Nam’s third most important political figure, will meet Barack Obama in the White House. This is indeed and important and rate opportunity for both the Vietnamese and U.S. states to move forward their bilateral relationship.

I’m no expert on the details of the Vietnamese-US bilateral relationship. But as an American citizen and a friend of Viet Nam I want to offer a few preliminary thoughts about the meeting, and perhaps spark a discussion.

Clearly this is an historic opportunity for Viet Nam. To my understanding the Vietnamese side has long desired such a meeting. It is also the case, however, that Hanoi’s behavior on a fronts, most notably human rights, has caused considerable frustration and annoyance among U.S. leaders. In this context it is intriguing if unsurprising that the long awaited trial of dissident lawyer Lê Quốc Quân, which was supposed to transpire around the 8th or 9th of July has yet to occur. Cảm ơn Barack Obama?

Viet Nam needs a breakthrough in its relations with the U.S. There are a few basic reasons for this worth laying out. One set of reasons pertains to Viet Nam’s economy, which has shown weakness and stagnancy amid a slowdown brought on both by global forces and problems in the country’s economic governance regimes. The global recession and governance problems notwithstanding, economic growth in Viet Nam (if not necessarily all of its people) would surely benefit through improved access to US markets and increased U.S. investment.

A second set of reasons pertains to the Southeast Asian Sea and bilateral military ties. Although the Vietnamese leadership must always keep an eye on China, we might expect Viet Nam to be in a stronger position with respect to China and the region if it were able to mobilize additional support. (Actually, ratification of UNCLOS would be perhaps even more important, though shortsightedness in the US congress continues to delay its ratification.)

The essential problem for the elders in Ba Dinh Square is if Viet Nam want’s breakthroughs in these important areas there must be some truly important changes; changes it is uncertain the CPV could bring about.

Although I am from the U.S. — or perphaps because of it — I also advise caution in dealing with the U.S. The US in a wealthy country (even if it’s poverty rates are highest among wealthy countries). And many times I find myself in sharp disagreement with the policies it advocates for or demands of developing countries. That does not mean, however, that economic reforms in Viet Nam are essential. Surely they are.

Returning to politics, I still believe the most effective reforms for Viet Nam will be to permit all Vietnamese full political rights with the power to participate equally and without discrimination; to say goodbye to repressive tactics, and to embrace a set of democratic institutions different from those pursued since 1945. Only by doing so will Viet Nam become an advanced, ‘civilized’ country; one that is admired, respected, and supported by the world.

It is apparent that not everyone in the CPV shares my views! On my Vietnamese blog, Xin Lỗi Ông, a thoughtful reader expressed concerns that remarks I made in a post along the lines of the above meant that I had forgotten or had not sufficiently borne in mind all the hardships US authorities had brought on Viet Nam. That I had become a shrill proponent of democracy, saying things that Vietnamese have gone to prison. I assured that reader that I have certainly not forgotten.

First and foremost, breakthrough economic and political reforms are important for Viet Nam and the Vietnamese. Reforms would also permit rapid and deep improvements in Viet Nam – US ties and allow the countries to escape from their sad past and move to a solid and strong relationship.

This time, will Viet Nam’s leaders be able to overcome the conservatism which has up until the present slowed the country’s development? It is not only the U.S. government that what’s Viet Nam to reform. Friends of Viet Nam are also hoping for action. The most important case for reforms, however, is that they are desired by a vast majority of Vietnamese. If you don’t believe me, may I suggest a referendum?