When U.S. President Barack Obama met with Vietnamese civil society members during his recently concluded official visit to the Communist Party-led country, half of the chairs at the appointed venue were empty. Hours before the scheduled meeting staged to symbolically show U.S. solidarity with the country’s grassroots democrats, security officials preemptively detained three of the invited participants, including a blogger, journalist and aspirant opposition politician.
The previous day, Obama announced that Washington would lift its decades-old lethal arms embargo on Vietnam, a concession the country’s authoritarian leadership has long sought. The embargo has loomed ever larger as China consolidates its strategic position over Vietnam in contested areas of the South China Sea.
While Obama claimed the former battlefield adversaries had buried “ideological differences” by ending the ban on lethal weaponry sales, the reality is that his administration chose to reward one of Asia’s least democratic regimes, with one of the region’s worst rights records, without notable progress on freedoms and liberties. Obama made the announcement alongside newly appointed President Tran Dai Quang, who until recently oversaw Vietnam’s fearsome Ministry of Public Security, the lead agency responsible for squelching dissent and jailing pro-democracy activists.
So why did Obama acquiesce on rights after years of failed dialogue on the issue? Although Obama denied the lifting of the embargo aimed to counter China’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea, fast shifting security dynamics that have challenged U.S. dominance in the region no doubt factored in his decision. While Vietnam relies largely on Russia for its armaments, including a recent $3.2 billion purchase of six Kilo-class submarines, U.S. surveillance technology and equipment would significantly improve its deterrent capabilities vis-à-vis China.
But there was obviously more at play in Obama’s embargo decision than future sales of coastal radar, patrol aircraft and fast response boats. Some sense that Obama, a lame duck leader in an election year, sought an Asian success story to shore up his foreign policy legacy amid the mire of unresolved conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Obama’s so-called “pivot” policy, also known as the “rebalance,” had aimed to put Asia at the center of U.S. foreign policy and establish the Hawaii-born and Indonesia-schooled leader as America’s first “Pacific President.”
Obama’s top advisers have held up the unfolding political transition in Myanmar, where an abusive military regime yielded power to an elected government (albeit with still strong military accents), as one of the pivot’s proudest accomplishments. Obama studiously withheld the fruits of engagement with Myanmar until the previous proxy military regime demonstrated democratic progress, witnessed eventually in the release of hundreds of political prisoners, an end to pre-publication press censorship and allowances for the persecuted political opposition to enter mainstream politics.
In a May 17 speech to the Center for New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes outlined how Obama successfully used an “action for action” approach to press for democratic change in Myanmar. “[Myanmar] is a potential example for how a country can transition from dictatorship to democracy, while pursuing effective development,” Rhodes said days before Obama departed for Vietnam. “We have to demonstrate that there is a dividend for countries that go down this road.”
Conversely, Obama has taken a symbolic stand on Thailand, where a military dictatorship has curbed rights since suspending democracy in a May 2014 coup. In response, the U.S. has downgraded traditionally strong strategic relations, witnessed in consecutively downsized joint military exercises known as Cobra Gold staged annually in Thailand. The two sides have jousted in particular over the regime’s clampdown on free expression, including a rash of harsh prison sentences given to critics of the military-propped monarchy. Since the coup, the United States has also singled out Thailand’s role in regional human trafficking rings.
Obama’s comparatively warm embrace of Vietnam, which holds over 100 political prisoners, bans independent media and routinely crushes all political opposition, raises questions of policy coherence and consistency. While Thailand has reversed democratic course, its ruling junta is not nearly as oppressive as Vietnam’s communist regime and maintains it will restore democracy after a period of reform. Relative to Myanmar, where ruling generals caved to many of the United States’ democratic demands, Vietnam’s communist leaders have been less willing to acquiesce to U.S. “action for action” offers to allow for more political openness.
On lifting the embargo, Obama pointed towards “progress” on rights, an assessment watchdog group Human Rights Watch (HRW) strongly contested. “In one fell swoop, President Obama jettisoned what remained of U.S. leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam – and basically gotten nothing for it,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “President Obama has rewarded Vietnam even though they have done nothing of note: the government has not repealed any repressive laws, nor released any significant number of political prisoners nor made any substantial pledges.” (Vietnam has recently released a handful of political prisoners on condition they go into exile.)
Another view is that Obama felt compelled to make a key concession to maintain strategic momentum with Vietnam’s newly appointed leaders. The United States had developed close ties to Nguyen Tan Dung, a two-term prime minister who was tipped to become the Party’s next secretary general but was eventually denied the post in an intra-party power play that elevated more conservative apparatchiks. While the United States last year hosted Quang and Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong, both are known to lean more naturally towards China than the United States. Their new government has already cracked down violently on peaceful protests and sentenced activists to prison on anti-state charges.
Because of the United States’ unfortunate war history in Vietnam, many in Washington are willing to overlook the country’s chronic abuses in pursuit of normalized relations, trade deals and strategic ties. While many will herald Obama’s visit and the embargo’s end as a historic next step towards reconciling the past, a younger generation of pro-democracy activists – many of whom hoped Obama would hold their leaders to the same democratic standard he required of Myanmar – posted to social media notes of disappointment and abandonment, an old, not new, local sentiment about U.S. involvement in Vietnam.