By Jonathan London
Vietnamese foreign minister Pham Binh Minh’s visit to Washington this week marks an important event in a larger process of warming governmental ties between the United States and Vietnam. The talks come after several months of high-level discussions between various representatives of the two sides in the face of China’s aims to enforce legally baseless sovereignty claims over the South China Sea and change the status quo through various coercive means.
In the face of these threats – to Vietnam’s sovereignty and to regional security – a great deal of attention has been paid directly to the imminent easing of Washington’s ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Hanoi. Beyond transfers of military equipment and technology and its not inconsiderable symbolic meaning, the lifting of the ban portends deeper military-to-military cooperation.
Yet talks between the two countries leaders extend well beyond the military sphere. Nearly four decades on from their disastrous war, the United States and Vietnam share numerous interests spanning trade and investment, education, and not least a need to manage what Vietnamese officials have diplomatically described as Beijing’s “unchecked unilateralism.”
Internationally, the spectacle of warming ties between Hanoi and Washington has received significant attention. What is perhaps less understood among foreign observers is the incredible and complex recent developments in Vietnam’s domestic politics. These developments, though difficult to completely understand, are nonetheless deserving of attention. Vietnam’s leaders and its people are today engaged in a grand debate about the country’s direction.
The questions facing the Vietnamese today are large and multifaceted. Among these the urgent problem of “how to cope with China now” is only the most obvious and intractable. The far more interesting and in many respects more important debates raging in Vietnam concern the course of the country’s institutional and political development. There is an increasing sense that the country’s institutions and politics – and not any foreign power – are the key factors undermining the country’s economic performance, slowing improvements in living standards, and intensifying inequalities of income, opportunity, and rights.
Vietnam remains an authoritarian polity. Yet in recent years debates about democracy and (to a lesser extent) rights have slowly but surely become regularized features of the country’s tense but gradually liberalizing political discourse. Many of the strongest proponents for fundamental institutional and political reforms are longtime party members, whose decades of service immunize them against repression.
Other voices for change are found in the country’s increasingly confident civil society that, though subject to waves of repression, has become a robust force in the country’s politics. Last but not least are millions of overseas Vietnamese – including earlier and very recent international migrants – who together with their countryman are keen to see Vietnam break through its self-made pathologies and join the ranks of East Asia’s open and democratic societies.
How, then, should we understand Vietnam amid the clinking of champagne glasses in Washington? Vietnam remains a country with vast economic potential. The country’s economy can and should be preforming much better than it is, something virtually all Vietnamese sense or know. Vietnam’s people have seen very significant improvements in their living standards, but the improvements have come from a very low base, are unequal across income groups, and are proceeding too slowing owing to various institutional constraints that adversely affect everything from education, to health care, to economic opportunities.
Standing between Vietnam and a more prosperous future are a series of important political decisions about the country’s institutional development. Closer ties with the United States are welcome and may assist Vietnam in addressing its institutional challenges. But ultimately it is the Vietnamese who must together decide.