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?