“Please take from me the token of trust so that we can embark on a hundred-year journey together.” President Barack Obama cited Vietnam’s most important poet, Nguyen Du, in Hanoi in front of 2000 enthusiastic Vietnamese during his recent state visit to Vietnam.
The audience, who were mostly young adults, had come to be inspired by the American President — known for his rhetorical skills — and were not disappointed. From that inspirational speech, to the meeting with young entrepreneurs, or eating bun cha at a local eatery in Hanoi, Mr Obama truly conquered the Vietnamese people’s hearts. His visit to Vietnam, aimed at boosting bilateral relations and setting stronger foundations for the next administration, was largely a success. Given the predominantly young population of the country, he managed to connect with them and inject a great amount of hope in future cooperation between the two nations.
The visit’s importance can be seen at two levels: bilaterally and also regionally. The two cities that the US President visited: Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City each represent different facets of the special bilateral ties. The first destination — Hanoi, the nation’s capital, witnessed the new heights of the bilateral relationship when President Obama met with the new Vietnamese top leadership and addressed important diplomatic, defence, and trade issues. It was here on the first day of the visit that Mr Obama announced a full annulment of the US arms embargo on Vietnam — a decision hailed as a symbolic milestone in the closure to the painful wartime past. Years ago, it would have been hard for anyone to imagine a picture of an American President smiling and shaking hands with Hanoi’s communist leadership in front of Ho Chi Minh’s statue. It might be even more surprising that the nation poured out to the streets waiting for hours, under the hot sun or pouring rain, to greet President Obama.
New Heights of the Relationship
Since the normalization of the US-Vietnam ties in 1995, their two-way trade grew nearly 100 times. Only compared with the year 2010, their bilateral trade grew from USD 18.5 billion to USD 45 billion in 2015. Vietnam is already the biggest Southeast Asian exporter to the American market. During the visit, some 11 agreements, ranging from political, education, and trade, were signed. Among them was a deal accounting for USD 11.3 billion from VietJet, the Vietnamese low budget airline, for an order of 100 Boeing planes. At the press conference, President Obama confirmed the US commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and his belief that it will be ratified because “it’s a right thing to do.” Should the TPP be implemented, the economies of the two countries will be further integrated.
The center of media attention was, however, taken by the announcement of lifting the US weapons embargo, as the meaning of it exceeds the domain of US-Vietnam bilateral relations. Obama’s decision amid China’s intensive militarization in the artificial islands of the South China Sea sends a strong signal to the region. Although, as he said in the press conference on May 23, the decision to lift the arms embargo was not because of China but rather US-Vietnam bilateral considerations, he did address the shared concern about maritime security. Obama reiterated the insistence on the regional order and the peaceful and law-based approach to the resolution of disputes in the South China Sea.
For Vietnam, who has been pressing for the embargo relaxation for years, the annulment has a four-fold meaning: it symbolizes the full normalization of ties with the US; it means Vietnam has reached a “full” internationalization by leaving the “black list”; it gives it an alternative in seeking defence measures amid China’s heavy militarization of the South China Sea; and it promises an upgrade and modernization of defence techniques and training.
Although it is still under the condition of a case-by-case consideration, Washington’s decision on opening the doors for Vietnam to make military purchases contributes to the building clout of Vietnam. The US pivot, or rebalance, to Asia has elevated Vietnam’s regional importance since 2010, when Hillary Clinton announced the concept of the “pivot to Asia” precisely in Hanoi at the ASEAN Regional Forum.
There remains long-term questions whether China is a necessary factor in shaping the current configuration of the warming up, or a sufficient condition for a long term friendship between Washington and Hanoi.
Vietnam, already the US’ biggest trading partner in Southeast Asia, may soon elevate to become one of the more important partners in regional security. With the current political attitude of many Southeast Asian leaders that pays decreasing importance to ASEAN, and if the other most active claimant — the Philippines will “take a step back” in its South China Sea policy under its new President Duterte, Hanoi’s political stability also means a certain consistency in its approach to China and maritime disputes. The recent four-point consensus1 questions the ability, or willingness, of the ten Southeast Asian states to work together. Washington recognizes the importance of having a stronger say among Southeast Asia and supports Hanoi’s resistance to China’s coerciveness. Beyond the embargo, Washington has pledged to provide Vietnam with 18 patrol boats.2 Additionally, Vietnam will also receive assistance provided by the Department of Defence’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) funding, a regional initiative for which the Department of Defence has committed $425 million over five years.
But, the excitement from the new heights of ties with Washington will not replace Hanoi’s careful considerations on how not to antagonize its big neighbours.3 In fact, Beijing’s reaction to that decision is being observed by the whole region.4 While the visit provided a great deal of optimism, there remains long-term questions whether China – a necessary factor in shaping the current configuration of the warming up – is a sufficient condition for a long term friendship between Washington and Hanoi.
Human Rights Expectations
President Obama faced the challenge of improving the US relationship with the Vietnamese government while not discarding the voices of the Vietnamese people. With some prominent dissidents being prevented from meeting the President,5 the human rights issues were said to be receiving insufficient attention.
Obama’s decision on lifting the arms embargo has already received criticism for over-prioritizing strategic and economic benefits. The timing did not help because of the recent protests in Vietnam caused by massive fish poisoning and the government’s lack of response and transparency. Moreover, the day he landed in Hanoi coincided with elections to Vietnam’s National Assembly. Named as the most important event in the exercise of civil rights, the representatives for five-year terms in the constitutionally highest body in Vietnam are voted by the general public. Usually the candidates are appointed by the Party leaders and they are Party members. This year, however, there was an outstanding number of independent runners, including some public personalities like academics, intellectuals, journalists, and pop music singers. What seems to be the only democratic exercise in Vietnam, however, has been boycotted by some, including those whose candidacies were not approved.
But to put it in a more constructive way, as President Obama quoted the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh: “In true dialogue, both sides listen.” His decision shows that the US has gone through a process of learning how to interact with Southeast Asian states. The normative narrative is less favorably received in Southeast Asia, particularly when China’s presence in the region intensifies, and especially over “conditionalities” such as human rights and democratization. Some would even argue that Washington’s insistence to those norms have cost its momentum in Southeast Asia, compared with that of China. With the economic embargo lifted for Myanmar and the arms embargo lifted for Vietnam, the Obama administration has “socialized” the idea that criticism in the ASEAN region is perceived as interference. Last year, during Trong’s visit to the White House, Obama had already guaranteed that the US will respect the internal matters of Vietnam.
After all, sanctions and embargoes did not work with Vietnam. The Vietnam War, which legacy Obama had tried to put behind, exemplified that the hard way is not the way to talk to the Vietnamese. Beijing’s current hard-line policy towards Vietnam is also inviting firmer responses. The Vietnamese prefer the soft way. Changes in the political system should come from within; it will take longer and have many obstacles along the way, but certainly a gradual change is better received rather than a drastic one.
On the second leg of his visit, President Obama travelled to Ho Chi Minh City, previously Saigon, which was once shattered by the war. In this city, now buzzing with business and entrepreneurship, the President met with civil society representatives and the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative. This part of his visit, far from high politics, paid attention to people-to-people ties. If there was any disappointment, then it was Obama’s missing the opportunity to meet the victims of Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance – presumably because the controversy back in the US.
With normalization of ties with Cuba and now the lifting of the arms embargo of Vietnam, Barack Obama is leaving a legacy of historic reconciliation and is pushing American foreign policy into a new era, beyond ideology, back to national interests. President Obama’s visit to Vietnam has laid down the solid foundations for bilateral ties. Trade and economic linkages are the core of longer term relations that can surpass ad hoc geopolitical shifts. For sure, at the current juncture, Washington’s soft power is outweighing that of Beijing’s. If generational change is unavoidable, Obama seems to have received the token of trust from Vietnam’s young generation.
1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC. (2016, April 23). Wang Yi talks about China’s four-point consensus on South China Sea issue with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos. Retrieved from http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1358478.shtml
2. Dao, T. (2016, May 24). US to provide 18 patrol boats to Vietnam. VN Express International. Retrieved from http://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/u-s-to-provide-18-patrol-boats-to-vietnam-3408010.html
3. Chin, J. (2016, May 24). China delivers muted response to US lifting of arms embargo on Vietnam. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/china-delivers-muted-response-to-u-s-lifting-of-arms-embargo-on-vietnam-1464008876
4. Krayewski, E. (2016, May 24). China reacts to US lifting of arms embargo against Vietnam. Reason.com. Retrieved from http://reason.com/blog/2016/05/24/china-reacts-to-us-lifting-of-arms-embar
5. Harris, G. and Perlez, J. (2016, May 24). As Obama presses Vietnam on rights, activists are barred from meeting. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/25/world/asia/vietnam-us-obama-human-rights.html?_r=2
6. Bennett, K. (2016, May 24). Human rights groups furious after Obama’s big announcement from communist Vietnam. Independent Journal. Retrieved from http://www.ijreview.com/2016/05/612001-obama-to-allow-arms-sales-to-vietnam-after-decades-long-embargo/