For two decades now, the United States and Vietnam have been forging an ever-closer relationship. Reciprocal visits began in the early 1990s, including trips to Hanoi by Sens. John McCain and John Kerry, both Vietnam War veterans. The two countries officially restored diplomatic ties in 1995, and President Bill Clinton visited in 2000 to discuss trade and security issues. Bilateral trade agreements were reached in 2001 and 2003, and U.S. support for further trade normalization led to Vietnam’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 2007.
Today, the United States and Vietnam are on the cusp of an even stronger relationship. In 2013, the two governments entered into a broad strategic and military partnership, to expand joint military operations, and although the Pentagon is barred from providing lethal military aid, training in less controversial areas, such as maritime security, continues to grow. Just this week, President Obama approved a plan for nuclear cooperation between the two countries. Vietnam and the United States could also soon join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multilateral free trade agreement that would lower tariffs on goods entering each country from the other.
From a broad perspective, all of this makes for a remarkable narrative. Normalization of ties was inevitable—in the 21st century, the so-called Asian Century, it was all but impossible for America to keep its distance. But with the United States and Vietnam, an even more remarkable result occurred: Two former enemies looked beyond their tragic, bloody past and began to agree on areas of mutual concern. It’s an inspiring post-conflict story.
Yet, legitimate questions continue to arise. What has this rapprochement achieved, and what is it worth to the United States? After all, there is a fundamental, systemic problem in the U.S. relationship with Vietnam: The country is not a democracy. Its government, overseen by a moldering Communist Party Politburo, doesn’t hold contested elections. It has only one political party—the Communist Party—which alone sets the destinies of the country’s 90 million citizens, guided by not popular sentiment but an esoteric brew of reformist Chinese economic theory, disingenuous interpretations of Ho Chi Minh texts and realpolitik aimed at securing the party’s continuing rule. WhenObama or Secretary of State Kerry meets their Vietnamese counterparts, they are not meeting representatives of the people of Vietnam; they are meeting party leaders who have benefited from human rights abuses at every step of their ascent into power.
To secure its rule, the Communist Party has long suppressed basic civil and political rights—free speech, assembly, religion. Simple acts of criticizing the government or the party, or exposing corruption or poor governance, are criminal and can result in long prison terms. And since internal security apparatuses like the powerful Ministry of Public Security dominate everyday life, the country’s few civil society organizations can only deal with less political issues, like land use and the environment. There are no independent trade unions, media companies or human rights groups.
In the face of this repression, a growing number of Vietnamese in recent years have been engaging in various forms of dissent, questioning government policies, exposing corruption or calling for alternatives to one-party rule. But in response, the government has only intensified its crackdown. At least 63 political prisoners were convicted for free speech acts in 2013, an increase from the 40 convictions in 2012 and the 33 from the year before that. Vietnam now has at least 150 political prisoners, and possibly more than 200. The numbers might have grown larger, but the message sent by more recent arrests has been enough to deter others from speaking out and risking detention.
The State Department has condemned these acts of repression, even as Pentagon and U.S. Trade Representative officials continue to meet and negotiate on strategic and trade issues. The Obama administration, slightly on its back foot because the president had to cancel a key trip to Asia during the government shutdown last fall, is keen to demonstrate that its “rebalancing” policy toward Asia is intact, even as American attention continues to be drawn to other troubles in the Middle East and elsewhere. Vietnam stands to benefit in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations much more than Washington, since the United States already has free trade agreements with most of the other TPP partners. But the White House has specifically courted the Vietnamese government as a key partner in its “pivot” to Asia, inviting President Truong Tan Sang to the White House in late 2013 and promising that Obama hopes to visit Vietnam soon.
Obama presumably knows that the Asia rebalance should be about more than strategic and economic interests—a pivot not to Asia but to Asians. In an Asia policy speech in Australia in 2011, he spoke of activists, including in Vietnam, defying oppression “in small acts of courage the world may never see,” by writing blog posts, signing onto charters or remaining in prison unbent. “Men and women like these know what the world must never forget,” he said. “History is on the side of the free—free societies, free governments, free economies, free people.”
Achieving freedom, however, is not as simple as using lofty words. The question now is whether the Obama administration will directly tie the rewards of its friendship—from trade benefits to strategic ties—to the Vietnamese government improving its rights record. Vietnam’s leaders will not unclench their fists unless they are pressured to do so, and the United States is the best-positioned country in the world to exert that pressure.
John Sifton is Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.