The US need not appease the Communist Party to engage with Vietnam

Washington must avoid blurring the line between the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Vietnamese state.
A commentary by David Hutt
2024.03.09
The US need not appease  the  Communist Party to engage with Vietnam President Joe Biden attends a meeting with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at the Communist Party of Vietnam Headquarters in Hanoi, Sept. 10, 2023.
(Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

The death last month of William Beecher, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who, among other scoops, revealed the Nixon administration’s secret bombing campaign in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, ought to make us remember two things:

First: Washington has been guilty of criminality abroad, especially when it believes that noble-ish ends justify brutal means. And second, despite those who regard the U.S. government as perpetually conspiratorial, Washington is bad at keeping secrets. 

Obsessed with the idea that the Viet Cong’s persistence could be traced to allies or resources external to Vietnam—namely Cambodia and Laos—and that the will of the communist North, and thus its ally, the Soviet Union, could be overcome by displays of mass destruction, the Nixon and then Ford administrations resorted to great iniquities for the sake of the purported greater good. They also courted unsavory allies.

The same logic led the U.S.  to continue supporting the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after – and because – it was overthrown by Vietnam, and because it was backed by Beijing, the budding U.S. Cold War partner at the time. 

Cambodians flee Khmer Rouge insurgents during artillery shelling of Phnom Penh, Jan. 28, 1974. (AP)
Cambodians flee Khmer Rouge insurgents during artillery shelling of Phnom Penh, Jan. 28, 1974. (AP)

There are signs of this old fixation in Washington on viewing events in Southeast Asia solely through Cold War politics in U.S. engagement with Vietnam. 

There are still some people in Vietnam who resent the United States for abandoning the South to the communists in 1975, although most people who think this way risked their lives and fled abroad in the late 1970s. 

Today, a younger generation, while not nostalgic for the corrupt and dictatorial Republic of Vietnam in Saigon, is becoming resentful that Washington appears to be doing its utmost to entrench the Communist Party of Vietnam’s (CPV) rule. 

On my last visit to Vietnam, in late 2022, I met up with prison-scarred pro-democracy activists who cannot quite stomach the fact that the laudatory “reconciliation” since the 1990s between the former enemies has been conducted to ensure maximum exposure for the communist regime. 

In 2015, for instance, the Obama administration broke protocol when it invited Nguyen Phu Trong, the CPV general secretary, on a state visit, a privilege usually only offered to heads of government or state. 

When President Joe Biden traveled to Hanoi in September to upgrade relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, he didn’t have to sign the improved partnership deal alongside Trong; he could have done so with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh or State President Vo Van Thuong. 

Blurring the lines

But by signing it alongside the party boss Trong, Washington symbolically implied it bought into the communist propaganda that the CPV is  the Vietnamese state. 

“The degree to which the U.S. is willing to blur the lines between the Vietnamese state and the CPV represents the most substantial recognition of the CPV-led regime by Washington thus far, marking a significant achievement for both the CPV and Trong,” wrote  prominent Vietnamese academic Hoang Thi Ha in October. 

This is playing out even as quite a few senior CPV apparatchiks, including the general secretary, still think that Washington is plotting “peaceful evolution,” a communist euphemism for regime change that long predates the "color revolutions" modern-day autocrats fear.

As one democracy campaigner told me, in fact, Washington is effectively engaged in supporting the political status quo in Vietnam and is making the lives of reformers much more difficult. 

They can, he said, no longer count on rhetorical support from the U.S.. In the past, when trying to convert others to their cause, they could have at least pointed at speeches made by American officials who condemned the Hanoi regime’s repression.  Not anymore. 

Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and President Barack Obama speak to reporters after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 7, 2015. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and President Barack Obama speak to reporters after their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 7, 2015. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Washington officials push back. “We question whether public lecturing is the best plan of action with countries that are seeking to work closely with us,” one told the Washington Post after Biden’s visit to Vietnam in September. 

However, that overlooks the impact this has on the Vietnamese people. 

Without “public lecturing," many Vietnamese reckon that the U.S. is no longer interested in human rights in Vietnam. Worse, some think that Washington is praising the communist regime, influencing their own opinions on whether its monopoly of power is legitimate or beneficial.  

Writing about Biden’s meeting with Trong in the Washington Post’s opinion page last year, Max Boot noted that “when Biden glad-hands Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and now Nguyen Phu Trong…he is, at the very least, open to the charge of hypocrisy in a way Trump was not.” 

But Boot added: “Sometimes you have to make common cause with the lesser evil to safeguard the greater good. That’s what Biden is doing in Hanoi.”

Party state

The case made by the human rights activists isn’t that the U.S.  should have no relations with Vietnam; it’s that Washington shouldn’t be conducting this engagement so openly and cordially through the CPV. 

There is also no reason to think that if Washington is  friendly enough to the communist regime, Vietnam is going to become the next Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally that allows it to station troops on its soil.

Vietnam will never be an “ally,” in any meaningful sense, of the United States. And with the CPV  in charge, Hanoi will not  engage in containment of China. Some 90 days after Biden upgraded relations, Trong met with President Xi Jinping and signed Vietnam up to China’s “Community with a Shared Future.”

“[Washington is] in thrall to the idea that Vietnam can be part of an anti-China group. That idea is nonsense.” said analyst Bill Hayton

Those who truly seek  an alliance with Vietnam to contain China  should logically support regime change in Vietnam that produces a nationalist government in Hanoi that would be more receptive to the anti-Chinese voices of the masses and have no socialist pretenses to maintain an accord with Beijing. 

While there is no way for Vietnam to escape from the orbit of China, its largest trading partner, there are few reasons for Washington to be concerned that Hanoi is drifting into the “China camp.”

The Vietnamese public would never allow that to happen, and the CPV knows that anti-China nationalism is the greatest threat to the survival of its regime – not least since some Vietnamese regard their Communist Party as a Beijing puppet.  With Vietnam not badly indebted to Beijing, there is no real chance of a “China debt trap.”

China's President Xi Jinping swears under oath after being re-elected as president for a third term during the third plenary session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, March 10, 2023. (Noel Celis/AFP)
China's President Xi Jinping swears under oath after being re-elected as president for a third term during the third plenary session of the National People's Congress in Beijing, March 10, 2023. (Noel Celis/AFP)

Vietnam does not entirely share Washington’s sense of the threat from China, either.

Academic Khang Vu has stressed for years that what really scares Vietnam is a land invasion by China – not a naval confrontation in the South China Sea that Washington is intensely focused on.

The U.S. would not be able to defend Vietnam in that event.

U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation is an enduring lesson that one can lose the war but win the peace, but engagement should be conducted without so much reverence paid to the CPV. Washington must avoid the appearance that it is embracing the party line that there is no difference between the Communist Party of Vietnam and the Vietnamese state. 

David Hutt is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and the Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat. As a journalist, he has covered Southeast Asian politics since 2014. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of RFA.

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