John Kerry is finishing up his first visit to Vietnam as Secretary of State, a trip billed as a chance to “highlight…a growing partnership” against a backdrop of increasingly intertwined bilateral interests. Yet despite the progress over the past decade, Vietnam’s sometimes fierce suppression of free speech, religion, ethnic minorities and independent labor unions complicates closer cooperation. It’s time for the U.S. to use its considerable influence with Vietnam to press for change.
Few Secretaries of State can draw on the kind of goodwill Kerry has built up through his efforts to improve ties between the United States and its former adversary. This, coupled with Vietnamese concerns over China and Hanoi’s need to further develop U.S. economic and security ties, means there is space for U.S. diplomatic efforts to have small but significant impacts on the lives of ordinary Vietnamese, particularly in the area of human rights.
True, the question remains of how realistic it is to hope for such a push given the administration’s insistence that democracy and human rights are no longer “core interests” of the U.S. globally.
Kerry should start by securing the freedom of Le Quoc Quan and fellow dissidents. Quan is a human rights lawyer and blogger who represents a new generation of dissident in Vietnam. It is the third detention for this lawyer and former fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy (and, full disclosure, a friend of mine). Over the past five years he has become an irritant to the Communist Party leadership, repeatedly defending dissidents in court, demonstrating with fellow Catholics at confiscated Church properties, and posting articles online about needed legal reforms.
Le Quoc Quan is a priority case for both the Vietnamese-American community and Reporters Without Borders, which organized an appeal signed by a dozen international human rights groups. But he is only one of hundreds of dissidents locked up in Vietnamese jails, and many other prisoners are in poor health.
Like their Communist brethren in Beijing, the Party in Hanoi faces popular dissatisfaction due to lagging economic performance and corruption. Also like Beijing, Vietnam has sometimes restive ethnic and religious minorities – making up almost 20 percent of the population, Khmer, Hmong, Montagnard, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai communities face persistent racism, discrimination, religious persecution and abject poverty in part because they sided with the French or U.S. powers in the past.
Over the past several years, Communist Party leaders have become increasingly sensitive to public criticism and challenges to its political dominance, expanding efforts to silence dissidents and other critics of government policies. They believe that free speech, internet freedom, independent labor unions, and freedom of religion will eventually erode their legitimacy and political power, as it did it with the Communist parties of Eastern Europe.
It is probably too much to ask of U.S. diplomacy to halt all arrests of dissidents, censorship the Internet, or marginalization of minorities when Vietnamese leaders sees such actions as critical to their political survival. Still, the U.S. should be asking Hanoi to pay some price for improved relations. After all, Vietnam depends on U.S. export markets and security cooperation to survive China’s growing economic and military footprint.
Also, Hanoi is actively seeking admission to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) a trade regime that will include the likes of Chile, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia. Vietnam is the clear outlier among largely democratic TPP members. With this in mind, bipartisan coalitions in the U.S. Congress are moving to block Vietnam from TTP membership and additional U.S. trade benefits without measurable human rights improvements.
Hanoi also seeks U.S. military and diplomatic assistance for its conflict with China over territorial jurisdiction in the South China Sea. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, along with a bipartisan groups lead by Senator John McCain, have reportedly conditioned expanded military-to-military ties on human rights improvements. It is unclear whether the second term White House, along with new Secretaries Kerry and Hagel, share this stance, but the U.S. should make clear this linkage to the Vietnamese while promising further backing for Hanoi’s maritime claims.
Ultimately, the leverage exists to encourage meaningful reforms that marry U.S. interests in prosperity and principle. The question, then, is whether Vietnam will simply be allowed to jail hundreds of dissidents, expand internet controls, and marginalize millions of religious and ethnic minorities when the leverage and goodwill exist to stem the rising tide of rights abuses?
Not doing so would be a loss for long-term U.S. interests in East Asia, a blow to the millions of Vietnamese seeking democratic openness and human right and, potentially at least, may shape the way historians view John Kerry’s tenure as Secretary of State.