Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

US-Vietnam Ties: Time for a Rethink?

A strategic partnership with Vietnam would both advance US interests and produce better results on human rights.

By Hai Hong Nguyen for

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang's trip to Washington this week to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House is being closely watched by observers of the bilateral relationship, both in Vietnam and abroad.

There is a general sense among some observers that there is a historic opportunity to upgrade the current relationship to a strategic partnership. This optimism is born largely out of persistent rumors that Vietnamese leaders have decided that they must engage more closely with the U.S. in order to balance against China. The U.S., on the other hand, sees Vietnam as a crucial component of its rebalance to Asia.

But while the strategic logic of such a partnership is increasingly obvious, seizing it continues to be hobbled by concerns over Vietnam’s human rights record.

Together with strategic and economic interests, human rights and the promotion of U.S. values are often considered the three pillars of U.S. foreign policy.

That said, these pillars should not be seen as equal. Indeed, U.S. presidents have regularly prioritized America’s strategic and economic interests over its normative interests.

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For example, since the People’s Republic of China and the U.S. officially established ties in 1979, successive U.S. administrations have been critical of the Chinese government’s human rights record, and often express these criticisms publicly and in official publications. Nonetheless, Sino-U.S. ties remain robust as every U.S. administration has ultimately given America’s economic and strategic interests preference over its values when it comes to ties with China.

This pattern is even on display with many of Washington’s current strategic partnerships. For example, the U.S. recently established a strategic partners' dialogue with Angola, despite the belief among some that “Angola has become more corrupt and less free” in recent years.

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. also established a strategic partnership with Kazakhstan. Yet, according to a recent Amnesty International report, “Torture remains commonplace in Kazakhstan and the torturers are allowed to go free.” And Ukraine remains a U.S. strategic partner despite The Economist Intelligence Unit downgrading it from a “democracy with defects” to a “hybrid regime,” and Transparency International ranking it among “the bottom states” on its corruption index.

As these examples underscore, while the U.S. might view human rights as an important consideration, it ultimately remains ready to accept other countries’ failings in this area when more important interests are at stake.

Thus far, Vietnam has not proven to be one of these countries. Indeed, the U.S. has continued to make Vietnam improving on human rights a precondition for upgrading bilateral relations.

For example, Washington has candidly told Hanoi that it will not sell it lethal weapons until its human rights record improves. This stands in sharp contrast to U.S. policy towards other countries, such as its allies in the Middle East. Indeed, Washington only briefly suspended arms sales to Bahrain after the Arab Spring, and resumed them despite the government’s continued crackdown on its Shi’a population.

Part of the reason Vietnam is treated differently is undoubtedly driven by America’s domestic politics. Civil society groups in the U.S., some led by Vietnamese Americans, have long used Hanoi’s human rights abuses to argue against stronger bilateral ties. Most recently, anti-Vietnam groups in the U.S. have seized upon Hanoi's recent arrests and prosecutions of dissidents and bloggers to press the Obama administration to refrain from upgrading the bilateral relationship. Rest assured, then, human rights will be one of the subjects Obama and Sang discuss at the White House later today.

However, with Asia’s strategic environment deteriorating, and China acting in a more determined and aggressive manner in its maritime disputes in the South China Sea, the U.S. can no longer allow human rights to define its relationship with Vietnam. If the U.S. and the region are to reverse the troubling trends of recent years, the U.S. must put aside its concerns about human rights enough to establish a strategic partnership with Vietnam.

Fortunately, not only would this advance U.S., Vietnamese and indeed the region’s strategic interests, it would also be a more effective approach for dealing with human rights issues in Vietnam. Whereas the current, more strident approach often proves counterproductive, more active engagement with Vietnam on the issue – in the context of a strategic partnership – would almost certainly result in more action from Hanoi.  

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This week’s meeting between Sang and Obama is a good opportunity for open, sincere and constructive talks between the two countries, which should be geared towards developing a pragmatic roadmap for establishing a strategic partnership.

To achieve this outcome, however, the U.S. must adopt a stated policy of proactive engagement with Vietnam based on their overlapping strategic interests. Although human rights will never be absent from the bilateral relationship, America should eschew a radical policy on these issues, much as it does with other strategic partners. Positive engagement will, in any case, be more effective in addressing human rights issues in Vietnam than the overbearing approach has proven to be.

In other words, establishing a strategic partnership with Vietnam would be consistent with President Obama’s goal of “reject[ing] the false choice” between U.S. security and ideals.

Hai Hong Nguyen is a PhD candidate in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland in Australia.