By Phuong Nguyen
For the first time since Vietnam opened up to the world in the late 1980s, the country’s trajectory could shape the future geopolitics of Southeast Asia in significant ways. What that trajectory ought to look like has been a topic of intense discussions among Vietnamese leaders in recent months, as Vietnam gears up for the twelfth Communist Party Congress, expected to take place in early 2016.
A look at the draft political report—released for public comment last month and which outlines the government’s agenda and key policy priorities for the next five years—shows that Hanoi has begun to embrace a more holistic view of its strategic interests than in years past. Vietnam’s leadership has become more nuanced in its view of world dynamics, and of the Asia-Pacific region in particular.
The simplified lens of “us versus them,” largely unquestioned in the decades following the end of the Vietnam War and lingering even as Vietnam adopted economic reforms, steadily ceded way to an acute awareness of the fast-moving—and increasingly volatile—nature of global and regional security. A frontline Southeast Asian state in the South China Sea dispute, Vietnam has frequently been subject to Chinese aggression in these waters. In recent years, Hanoi has also found itself increasingly at the center of what many describe as a contest being played out in the Asia Pacific between two competing visions of global and regional order—one heralded by a rising China and the other by the United States and its allies.
This awareness will drive Hanoi to continue to pursue more strategic options in its foreign policy considerations. While the current leadership team has placed emphasis on broadening, or in some cases redefining, Vietnam’s key foreign partnerships, the next leadership team, which will take power in mid-2016, will focus more on deepening Vietnam’s engagement with key foreign partners. Such partners are understood to include ASEAN member countries, Japan, and the United States.
Many believe that the high-profile visit of Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to the White House in July, which Hanoi tenaciously pushed for and was timed to take place before the party congress, has opened a new chapter in U.S.-Vietnam relations.
A number among Vietnam’s top leadership long skeptical about U.S. intention and seriousness toward Hanoi have started to develop a level of trust and confidence in Washington. According to a senior U.S. diplomat, given Vietnam’s sensitivities and current level of economic development, Vietnamese leaders would not have stuck with the difficult negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement until its conclusion in early October unless it had some sense of confidence in the United States.
The upcoming leadership transition takes place when many of Vietnam’s obligations in global economic integration are coming due, including the new requirements of the TPP and the ASEAN Economic Community, but also outstanding obligations to the World Trade Organization, which Vietnam joined in 2007. Vietnam’s recently concluded free trade agreement with the European Union is also expected to kick in during this period. Against this backdrop, the year 2016 marks 30 years since Vietnam adopted market-oriented economic reforms, known as “doi moi,” and presents a new window of opportunity for Hanoi to pursue policy actions that could help propel Vietnam’s economy higher in the global supply chain. It is no coincidence that one of the draft political report’s main lessons drawn from the experience of the past three decades is the need for continuous change and reinvention.
By the same token, the top leadership was remarkably candid in its assessment of the challenges facing Vietnam. The report pointed out that political momentum has not kept pace with economic renewal, causing Vietnam to fall short of its economic potential. It stresses, among other things, the need for Vietnam to adjust its legal system to international standards of the rule of law.
The Vietnamese government has, for instance, been working closely with the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi to ensure that its laws adhere to the different economic and labor-standard requirements of the TPP. Washington has also invested in helping Vietnam improve its policymaking process in anticipation of the TPP, and reform its higher education system to meet the demands of the next phase of reform. Meanwhile, major U.S. companies such as Intel Corp. and Hanes continue to expand their already sizable operations in Vietnam.
These trends are a reminder that Vietnam shares more common strategic interests with the United States beyond the South China Sea issue.
Nonetheless, China will continue to be the number one priority in Vietnam’s foreign policy. The report, as expected, pays homage to the historical ties between the two governments and Communist parties.
However, the report does not shy away from urging the deepening of global economic integration, so that Vietnam ultimately does not have to “rely on a single market.” Without referring directly to China, the report laments that the leadership’s awareness has at times lagged behind the complexities and fast-moving security developments in the region, bringing to mind the shockwaves that rippled through Hanoi when Beijing deployed an oil-drilling rig last year in waters claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea.
While this agenda can serve as a catalyst for closer U.S.-Vietnam relations in the coming years, U.S. policymakers will want to note that the idea of “peaceful evolution,” discussed several times throughout the draft report, is still considered a very real threat in some quarters of Vietnam’s leadership. This means that the United States should be more cognizant than ever about the importance of engaging the party and its leaders in the burgeoning partnership with Vietnam, and in ways that will be appropriate to the two countries and their respective political systems.
Although this year’s preparations for the upcoming party congress have been quieter than in the past, Vietnam’s leaders clearly recognize that their country is at a crossroads. If Vietnam chooses to go through with its aspiration to build a rules-based society and its vision of deeper international integration in both the economic and security spheres, it can rise to become a much more consequential geopolitical player in Southeast Asia. And that is a good thing for U.S. interests in the region.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.