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Vietnam Between Rock and a Hard Place

Vietnam, intent on modernization for its 92 million people, vacillates between China and the United States for economic and military ties. Both great powers expect the small communist country to acquiesce to specific demands: The US wants improved human rights and democratic freedoms while China seeks capitulation on its claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea. Either stance fuels opposition inside Vietnam so a balancing act between the two isn’t easy. The United States resists taking sides in territorial disputes, but its own reticence to endorse the UN Charter on the Law of the Sea does not help ease regional bickering on maritime claims. Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang visited China in mid-June and has since, with short notice, scheduled a trip to the United States, where veterans of the Vietnam War are in charge of diplomacy and defense posts. David Brown, a former US diplomat, wonders whether the sudden trip suggests Vietnam's leaders are worried about their giant neighbor and ready for closer ties with the United States. – YaleGlobal

Vietnam Between Rock and a Hard Place

Is disappointment with China behind Vietnam president’s hurried visit to Washington?
David Brown
YaleGlobal, 18 July 2013
Changing direction? Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang, left, with China's President Xi Jinping in June( top); former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta visiting Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay harbor

FRESNO: Head-of-state visits typically take months to organize, but Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang is coming to Washington on very short notice and just after an evidently jolting encounter with China's leaders. Could it be that Sang and his colleagues have decided to pay the price the US has demanded for a "strategic partnership"?

Early in June, US State Department officials told a Congressional subcommittee that closer ties with Vietnam, in particular weapons sales, are on hold until there is "continued, demonstrable, sustained improvement in the human rights situation." The officials put on the public record a message that US diplomats have been delivering privately for a couple of years. Their testimony largely went unnoticed except by the online media that stoke the fires of dissidence in Vietnam. 

Coincidentally, Vietnamese police arrested yet another blogger on June 13, charging Pham Viet Dao with "abusing his right of free speech to undermine the interests of the State." According to the Associated Press, 43 dissidents have been jailed this year, twice the pace of 2012. Moreover, there's evidence that the cybersecurity arm of Vietnam's police has deployed FinFisher surveillance technology – made by UK-based Gamma International – to plant spy software in computers and smartphones of people who access dissident blogs.

Hanoi has not welcomed American démarches on human rights issues. Party stalwarts gag on demands that Vietnam allow greater democratic freedoms, fearing that Washington’s true objective is to bring down the regime. 

Vietnam’s communist stalwarts resist demands of greater democratic freedom, fearing that the objective is to bring down the regime.

The crackdown on bloggers seemed to manifest a regime tilt toward China, the bête noire of Vietnam's dissidents. For years, dissident bloggers have flayed the regime for, they say, its failure to defend Vietnam's interests against its giant neighbor. Exhibit A: China's step-by-step solidification of a claim to "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea, including waters off Vietnam's coast. 

Vietnam's naval and air forces, though not insignificant, are no match for China's. Rather than risk clashes over disputed rocks and reefs – and possible oil and gas deposits – Vietnam's rulers have sought to brake Chinese aggression by rallying the support of ASEAN partners and by forging "strategic relationships" with the United States and other extra-regional powers. The results of these diplomatic efforts have been modest. ASEAN's 10 members have jawed on about “centrality” in regional matters, but failed to establish a common front with respect to China's sweeping territorial claims. Meanwhile, wary of being maneuvered into defending Vietnamese or Filipino islets, the United States has insisted that it "does not take sides" on territorial disputes. Worried also that the rising superpower will retaliate in other areas, Washington and most ASEAN capitals have shied away from direct challenge to Beijing's quest for hegemony over waters lying between Hong Kong and Singapore. 

Beijing's claims are based on records of visits by fishermen centuries ago. In contrast, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam rely on the UN Charter on the Law of the Sea and other international law. Policy shepherds in Washington agree that the thicket of claims must be untangled by reference to those legal precepts. But this stance is undermined by repeated US failures to ratify UNCLOS and the failure of the four ASEAN frontline states to sort out conflicting claims among themselves. The stance offers no clue to Washington's course if Beijing continues to nibble its way toward a fait accompli.

As tensions have risen with China, many in Vietnam have urged a de facto economic and military alliance with the US.

As tensions have risen, non-Communist Vietnamese and a significant faction within the Communist Party have urged a de facto economic and military alliance with the US. There's been progress toward Vietnam's membership in the projected US-led Trans-Pacific economic partnership. Although many party leaders remain skeptical of US intentions, in the last four years there's been remarkable expansion of consultations with the US armed forces. In June, for example, senior members of Vietnam's general staff toured US bases. 

Until last week, that sort of military-to-military dalliance, designed to signal to Beijing that Hanoi has options, seemed to have hit its natural limits – friendly visits and a bit of training in non-combat activities like search-and-rescue operations. A year ago Vietnam rejected former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's proposal that it host rotations of US troops and warships.

Again this spring, Beijing has flexed its maritime muscles. Uncharacteristically, Hanoi hardly reacted. In May, it registered pro forma complaints about rough treatment dealt to Vietnamese fishermen and denied a PetroVietnam report that Chinese vessels had harassed one of the state oil company's survey ships. Why became clear on June 14, when Hanoi announced that President Sang would pay a state visit to China.

Sang's mid-June trip, the first by a top Vietnamese leader since Xi Jinping was installed as China's president in March, was loaded with ritual and meaning accrued over a millennium  of such missions. The Vietnamese are justly proud of a tradition of successful resistance to invading Chinese armies. Also throughout their history, they've often induced China to respect Vietnam's autonomy by projecting deference. Last month, Hanoi was kowtowing vigorously.

The orchestration of Sang's visit suggests that notwithstanding frictions, Vietnam's leaders remained hopeful that China’s leaders will not betray a ruling party so like their own. There was the usual heavy stress on the two countries' "comprehensive strategic relationship."  Signatures were affixed to a sheaf of routine agreements.

The decision to send Sang to Washington suggests that Vietnam's leaders may be ready to deal with the US.

Other than an earful of admonition, Sang appears to have taken little home from Beijing. Xi promised that China would "actively take effective and drastic measures" to narrow a $16 billion imbalance in bilateral trade flows. Such promises have been made before to no great effect. On the South China Sea, Sang had nothing to show but agreement on a hot line to discuss incidents involving fishermen. By rejecting mention of UNCLOS, to which both nations are signatories, and other prescriptions of international law as the foundation of a territorial settlement, Beijing stepped back from assurances it gave Vietnam 20 months ago when Hanoi agreed to bilateral negotiation of claims to the Paracels, islets that China wrested from South Vietnam in 1974. Those talks haven't made visible progress. Conceding as much, Xi and Sang agreed that they'd be intensified.

The Politburo's decision to send Sang to Washington suggests that Vietnam's leaders have been shaken by what Xi and his colleagues told Sang in private and are ready to deal with the US on a more intimate defense relationship. A leading dissident was to go to trial on the day before Sang's pending trip was announced; that trial has been indefinitely postponed. Vietnam’s leaders may hope President Barack Obama will settle for such cosmetic gestures. If so, they are likely mistaken. 

As the administration acknowledged to Congress last month, "the American people will not support a dramatic upgrading of bilateral ties without demonstrable progress on human rights." In fact, the US does not need a more robust military tie with Vietnam to defend its interests in the South China Sea. It can afford to take the long view and surprise cynics by standing firm on human rights. With Vietnam War veterans John Kerry and Chuck Hagel now supervising US foreign and defense policy that may be exactly what the US will do.


David Brown, a freelance journalist and retired US diplomat, worked in Vietnam for many years.
Rights: Copyright © 2013 The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale

Comments on this Article

23 July 2013
If the US lost the South China Sea,they will lost ASEAN to chinese hand.
-Gon , Viet Nam
22 July 2013
The hoodoo-voodoo of these nations' development of ties with (and responses to) China continues to enthrall, but I'm not very surprised that given the massive leverage that the US has got at its disposal, the US is holding back alot.
-Boris , Australia
21 July 2013
Please put attention on a dangerous situation of Vietnamese blogger DIEU CAY - NGUYEN VAN HAI in jail No. 6, Nghe An Province, Vietnam. He is now on 29th days of hunger-strike to protect the authority forcing him confessing a guilt which he not made!
Vietnamese people need international support for our Human Right!
-Alabama , Vietnam
21 July 2013
Vietnam need to develop an "A" bomb to protect itself from chinese future aggression.
-John Lone , San Diego
20 July 2013
I would like to place the following article as background information:
Before the Obama-Sang’s dialogue
An Assessment of the Xi-Sang’s Joint statement in Beijing
Le Xuan Khoa
Nineteen days after Vietnam’s PM Nguyen Tan Dung delivered his key-note address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, reorienting Vietnam’s foreign policy towards the United States, President Truong Tan Sang arrived in Beijing to hold talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the comprehensive strategic cooperation between the two nations. Then, the two leaders witnessed the signing ceremony of ten documents covering a wide range of areas, from border security, offshore oil exploration, preferential credit assistance, to cultural exchange, and a hot line to deal with unexpected incidents in maritime fishery.
The trip ended with a 5,000-word, 8-provision joint statement. The first provision highlights the purpose of the bilateral summit dialogue which is “to upgrade the Vietnam-China relations to a new height.” The second provision reaffirms “the 16-word motto and the 4-good spirit" in long-term development relations between the two countries.
The third provision is most important as it summarizes 13 areas of a two-way program. This program, "urgently discussed" at the sixth meeting of the Steering Committee for Bilateral Cooperation on May 11, became Document No. 1 at the June 19 bilateral summit meeting The remaining nine documents elaborate on the cooperation between ministries in all areas.
The Xi Jinping-Truong Tan Sang dialogue comprises some salient points worth careful examination.
1. The goal of continuing “intensive development of cooperation” was emphasized by both the Vietnamese President and the Chinese Ambassador to Hanoi, shortly before the Vietnamese leader’s trip to Beijing. Obviously this is a strong response to the watershed in foreign policy made by PM Nguyen Tan Dung at the Shangri-La Dialogue. The fact that Document No. 1 was “urgently discussed” in the May meeting of the Steering Committee implies that Beijing had been secretly informed of PM Nguyen Tan Dung’s pivot to the United States, hence the decision to consolidate its alliance with the anti-Dung faction within the Vietnamese Communist Party.
2. President Truong Tan Sang is known as an antagonist to Beijing’s expansionist policy. On several occasions he has shown determination to defend national independence and territorial integrity. Only two years after inauguration did he make his first visit to China. This may mean that Xi Jinping, seeking to deter Nguyen Tan Dung’s pivot to the U.S, needs to reassure Truong Tan Sang and support his contention for power. Meanwhile, Mr. Sang must rely on this powerful neighbor to protect the Party and the regime.
3. Another scenario is that, given the risk of collapse that the Party is facing due to internal strife and the international trend to curb China’s expansionism, the Vietnamese Politburo may have reached a consensus, which is to rebalance their foreign policy with less inclination towards China. This “walking a tightrope” policy does not matter much to the United States, since it is not a U.S. ambition to intrude upon territorial sovereignty of any nation in the region. But China for thousands of years has never abandoned its attempt to conquer and sinicize Vietnam. To protect its independence, Vietnam has no better choice than securing a strategic partnership with the U.S.
It is important to examine in detail each of the ten signed documents to realize what they mean for Vietnam. The author, having no access to these documents, can only provide some general assessments:
1. The bilateral talk was based on the obsolete framework of “the 16-word motto and the 4-good spirit,” which has proved that Vietnam had long been cheated by China’s rhetoric. In fact China had used “unilateral power, unreasonable demands, actions of coercion and power politics against international law” as implied by PM Nguyen Tan Dung in his Shangri-La speech. The Joint Statement does not mention the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, and this is detrimental to Vietnam and other ASEAN nations.
2. Some of the agreements are beneficial such as setting up the hot line to deal with unexpected incidents in maritime fishery, cooperating in testing and quarantine of imported/exported animals/plants, granting preferential buyer credit to the Nitrogen Coal Factory Project. The point is whether or not these agreements will be effectively enforced.
3. One controversial agreement is the expansion of the jointly explored zone in the Gulf of Tonkin . This is very likely another concession by Vietnam.
4. Document No. 4 refers to a preferential credit for the Railway Information System project, which actually is the Highway Transportation System of Pingxiang – Lang Son – Hanoi. A highway connecting Pingxiang and Hanoi can cause great danger for Vietnam if an armed conflict were to arise between the two countries.
5. Document No. 5 regarding cultural exchange between Vietnam and China and the establishment of cultural centers located in both countries is obviously a China’s scheme to annex Vietnam.
In summary, the Xi-Sang’s strategic dialogue appears to reduce tension and enhance cooperation between China and Vietnam, but it in fact implies China’s persistent attempt to encroach upon Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese leaders are still struggling with the dilemma of maintaining the Party and the regime, and the need to respond to the patriotic citizens and their aspiration for democracy.
Vietnamese communist leaders should know that rather than following China, if they choose to embrace democracy ahead of China, they will be supported by their people and the democratic world, and they will succeed in defending and developing the country. They had better conciliate political dissidents, release the prisoners of conscience, and cooperate with the intellectuals on a practical plan for comprehensive reform.
Chinese communist leaders should also realize that the international community, including small developing countries, will never accept China as a world leader, unless they change from dictatorship to democracy. A developed and democratic China will not be a threat to world peace. It will be welcomed and recognized by all nations as a global super power. China’s dignity, humiliated by Western powers in remote past, will be completely restored. More importantly, a friendly and democratic China will receive respect and support from its neighbors and other Asian nations. The South China Sea will be calm. The world will be in peace.
Such is the message that needs to be conveyed to the leaders and people of China.
Le Xuan Khoa is president emeritus of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) and a former adjunct professor at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC.
-Khoa Le , Irvine, California
20 July 2013
Even Commies of VN imported the Karc Mark ideal into Vietnamese people which most its citizens do not like, of course 5 millions Commies worship Ho and Lenin etc.
BUT Vietnam needs to be indepdent and strong in economical as well as military to be able to have stable in East Sea and South East Asia. without those factors Asia will get into the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s again. Escpecially, today the world relies upon trading from Asia and China.
US "might NOT" need nor has "any interests" with Vietnam that will be a short sight how to make the world stable.
Vietnam history showed that even it smaller than one China's province but it will not let China swallows it . When it happened more refugees will put burden on countries around it. More Vietnamese women and children will be kill and chop like the 1979 and Chinese will throw children into the wells on its ways.
Carter did not say a word when Deng told him to teach Vietnam a lesson and have diner in Hanoi after 24 hours of invaded.
May be US did not care in the past but now US has interests, the ball is in the US hands. Of couse, US might be selfeffiction but it is harder compare to WWII time frame.
The Vietnam Commies's side should trust it people more than trusting its Chinese Commies to open up democracy as it laws were made. In long run a drop of water that makes spilling.
-Hien Nguyen , USA
19 July 2013
I am in agreement with David Brown that President Truong Tan Sang's visit to Washington was hastily organised. I would argue, however, that Vietnam has been pressing the US for nearly a year for a high-level visit by its President. This leads me to a slightly different take than Brown's analysis. As US Wikileaks cables reveal, Vietnam's internal minders seek balance in overseas visits by their top leaders. I put less stress on Brown's assertion that Sang's visit to China did not go well and prompted a sudden push by the Politburo to get Sang to visit Washington. Rather, I would ask, why did the Obama Administration suddenly change tact and approve a visit by Sang? The answer lies in a Politburo Resolution on International Integration adopted on April 13 and yet to be released. This resolution states that economic integration must be placed at the center of Vietnam's priorities and that all other aspects of international integration must support this goal. Sang's visit is mainly about the Trans-Pacific Partnership and future economic relations with the United States.
-Carlyle Thayer , Australia
19 July 2013
Fair reporting and opinion, but some corrective info. and redirection are needed:
1. China may have some vague records of their fishermen visits to islands and South China Sea water but, Vietnam has official records of actual practice of continuous sovereignty over Paracel ans Spratly islands since 1,600's. The Nguyen dynasty, started with emperor Gia Long created a naval fleet to patrol these rocks/reefs..., to collect valuables from ship wrecks and to hunt for maritime products.
2. While Vietnam may have poor human rights relative to developed world, does the US have any more right to ask for improvements when it continues to imprison people in Cuba without trials, to perform surveillance on millions of its citizens and oversea allies, to harbor over 2 millions of Vietnamese Americans assisting and growing anti-Vietnamese government, permanently?
3. Given the lopsided imbalance of military strengths between China and Vietnam ( including the Philippines ) and continued aggression of Chinese expansionism, will the US watch without forces intervention when South China Sea moves from de facto Chinese control now to actual Chinese sovereign water? How does the US reconcile its freedom of navigation interest / neutral on sovereignty with Chinese indisputable sovereignty pursuit?
Your conclusion of " the US does not need a more robust military tie with Vietnam to defend its interests in the South China Sea. It can afford to take the long view and surprise cynics by standing firm on human rights. " is more wishful thinking than reality. By the way, how are the human rights records of Iraq and Afghanistan... as we are nation building over there?
-henry winn , usa
19 July 2013
Just hoping that the conflicts between the two countries should over fast.
-Eli Wesley , Texarkana