No matter where U.S. strategic interests lie, Vietnam remains a communist party dictatorship that systematically restricts fundamental rights.
“Big nations should not bully smaller ones. Disputes should be resolved peacefully,” were the words of U.S. President Barack Obama during his visit to Vietnam. They were, of course, aimed at China, seen by Vietnam as a threat, particularly in the dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
As far as the U.S. is concerned, it has no desire whatsoever to see China expand its supremacy by establishing bases in the South China Sea region. It is therefore only logical for the U.S. to join forces with the smaller players against the Chinese territorial claims in the resource-rich area. Based on the motto “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” Vietnam is an important partner for the U.S. here. The State Department has already sponsored the expansion of Vietnam’s maritime security capacity with $47.5 million, and further support is on its way in the form of the USA’s "Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and Maritime Security Initiative.”
It also goes without saying that the decision announced on Monday to lift of the arms embargo on the USA’s former archenemy was taken with China’s ambitions in mind, despite Obama claiming otherwise during the press conference. Step by step, relations between the U.S. and Vietnam are normalizing — a development accelerated by tangible security and economic interests. Thus, they are now best friends.
Yet, in spite of the legitimate interests pursued by the USA, there is one aspect that seems to have faded into the background: the fact that Vietnam remains a communist party dictatorship that systematically restricts fundamental rights. The state controls the media and justice system, as well as political and religious institutions. Critics of the regime — bloggers, trade unionists, land rights activists, or politically and socially committed citizens — find themselves facing repression. Ethnic and religious minorities suffer constraints and persecution.
Admittedly, a 70-year-old dissident priest and blogger was released early from prison prior to Obama’s visit. Yet, for the Vietnamese government, his release was easy to “get over” as he would have been set free two months later anyway. Even if Obama is sending out a signal by urging Vietnam to adhere to human rights, which sounds almost ironic in light of the Vietnam War, there is a sense that his intentions are merely tactical.
It remains to be seen to what extent U.S. policy toward Asia will change under the next president. In any event, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have already declared their opposition to the agreed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement; however, it must be said, not because of human rights concerns.