US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Hanoi Tuesday that the US supports Vietnam's work in resolving the South China Sea issue, but also told Vietnam it needs to do more to protect human rights. She expressed her concerns over "the jailing of journalists, bloggers, lawyers and dissidents for peaceful expression."
Clinton's remarks have clearly outlined the direction of Vietnam developing a strategic partnership with the US. The bilateral relationship between Hanoi and Washington is more like a marriage of convenience. Vietnam has to give up its current path of development if it wants to be able to count on US support.
Politically, Vietnam is following the path of China, realizing rapid development by taking the road of gradual reform. Western values haven't deeply encroached into Vietnam. The influence of political opposition is much less active than it is in China.
An elite class politically allied with the West hasn't been formed in Vietnam. But such a trend is already being started before it deeply affects Hanoi's domestic political landscape.
Strong anti-government protests are rare in Vietnam now. A few sporadic incidents are seemingly all against the Chinese government. However, they may change their targets in the future.
Vietnamese mainstream society has acknowledged China's development model. Many feel powerless over territorial disputes between the two countries. Nationalist sentiment, on the one hand, is uniting Vietnamese society, but is also poisoning Hanoi's political connection with China. Vietnam is being pushed by the growing nationalist mood toward the US, which likes to reprimand Vietnam politically at the same time as lending its support.
Hanoi is counting on China to vindicate its political choices, but also wants to counter China by leveraging US power. However, the strategy needs to strike a good balance between China, the US and its domestic political forces. It will be difficult to sustain this for long.
The only viable path for Vietnam is to coordinate with China to limit the US pivot to Asia. The territorial disputes should not turn into hostility against each other. Instead of being a link in the US chain containing China, Vietnam can be a post against deep US involvement in Asia.
Hanoi has been keen on facilitating the US return to Asia in the last few years. It should be clear that the pressure Washington has placed on China will be felt in Vietnam. It will very likely be among the first victims if East Asia is overwhelmed by political disturbances.
During her speech in Mongolia Monday, Clinton attacked China's political system without naming the country. It shows the US pivot to Asia also has a value subtext besides military and economic concerns.
Both China and Vietnam are progressing in terms of creating prosperity and freedom for its people. Clinton and her colleagues should save their slogans and instead prove to the world that they are able to lift the US and the West out of financial chaos.