China-Vietnam Relations at a Turning Point

(Image:  Giang Hồ Thị Hoàng  via   flickr  /  CC BY 2.0 )

Can Vietnam continue to shrug off U.S. warning? China-Vietnam relations are becoming bitter on the East Sea (South China Sea), even with the utmost deference from Hanoi. The U.S. has repeatedly warned Vietnam that economic development and democracy must go hand-in-hand.  Vietnam has taken the warning lightly, while the Vietnamese economy falls into distress.

After the Vietnam War, U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations finally resumed in 1995. In 2001, both sides signed the Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA), opening new opportunities for Vietnam. In 2007, the U.S. strongly supported Vietnam in becoming a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

As a result, investments increased and trade flourished. By 2012, 2-way trade between Vietnam and the U.S. reached $25 billion in favor of Vietnam, and 15,000 Vietnamese students were permitted into the States.  Additionally, a fresh and dynamic young middle class has been emerging in [Vietnamese] society along with the flourishing Internet age.

Instead of reforming the out-of-date political system to further socio-economic development, the Politburo of the Vietnamese Communist Party, fearing loss of power, have mixed socialism with capitalism in what they call a “socialist-oriented market economy.”

They naively think that capitalist money, combined with strong political support from China, will help them get the means to achieve a socialist dream. As a result, the economy has been suffering since 2010. According to a World Bank estimate, growth is at 5 per cent, while inflation is more than 8 per cent in 2013.

There is also great risk of losing economic and territorial sovereignty (Paracel Islands and most of Spratly Islands) to China. Both catastrophes are provoking widespread popular protests across the country, and are gravely challenging the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party as never before.

Vietnam is one of the 10 member nations of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Eight of the 10 ASEAN members are democratic countries. This includes Myanmar (Burma), currently undergoing democratic reform.

How can Vietnam go against the common sense and common political will of the whole bloc? A new free and democratic Vietnam would be a prospect long-awaited by ASEAN and the U.S., which is willing to incorporate Vietnam into the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) in its comeback to the Asia-Pacific region.

Perhaps the most welcoming and encouraging of a new free and democratic Vietnam would be the Vietnamese people, who have long been struggling for freedom, rule of law, and new national policy that represents their interests. Vietnam could then bring value to ASEAN’s directives.

The democratization of Vietnam would be the wind in our sails at this historic moment. Indeed, relations between the U.S. and China are changing fast toward “Cooperation in Competition” / “Competition in Cooperation”. After the recent Obama-Xi Jinping meeting in California, China would not be able to hinder the democratization of Vietnam.

Vietnam’s democratization would bring peace and stability to ASEAN, while non-allied and regional cooperation will benefit all, including developed and developing countries around the world.

Vietnam is suffering an ill economy and the grave menace of China. In that context, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang urgently asked the U.S. for a state visit. President Obama favorably responded, and scheduled a meeting for July 25, 2013 at The White House.

Human rights and strategic partnership topics will ride high on their agenda. The U.S. is trying to rebalance its strategy in the Asia-Pacific region as its core interest. The main economic tool to put it in place is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, placing Vietnam as one of soon-to-be 12 total partners in this multilateral negotiation.

I strongly suggest that President Obama advise President Sang to both listen to the will of the people, and democratize Vietnam. That would be the best way for Vietnam to enter the TPP and secure comprehensive strategic partnership from the U.S.

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