Can Obama get strategic support in Hanoi?

By Zhou Fangyin Source:Global Times Published: 2016-5-22 23:18:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

US President Barack Obama starts his first state visit to Vietnam on Monday. After the US and Vietnam restored their diplomatic relationship in 1995, former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush visited Vietnam in 2000 and 2006. Obama's visit comes amid Washington's full advancement of the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and the simmering tensions over the South China Sea caused by US warship patrols and an international arbitration. It seems that this visit bears some special significance, and both Washington and Hanoi expect their relations could find some breakthroughs through this visit.

With only a few months left in his second term, Obama has become a lame duck, which, however, has liberated him from the shackles of internal political struggle and encouraged him to make bold moves in external affairs. A focal point of Obama's visit is whether he will lift the long-standing arms embargo on Vietnam.

Obama's visit signifies that the US-Vietnamese relationship is gaining momentum, but the question is how far it can go. The answer to this question does not hinge on a US president's visit, but on how well their strategies can fit to defend national interest.

Both Hanoi and Washington have shown strong willingness to improve their relationship in recent years. But generally speaking, since the rapprochement in 1995, the pace of both sides to boost their ties is not quite rapid. It was not until the South China Sea dispute became a hot button issue that Hanoi and Washington found a bigger common ground for cooperation. The evolution of their relationship indicates that although the US and Vietnam are eager to forge closer ties, there are many other disagreements within their relationship, making Vietnam unlikely turn to the US completely. That is to say, a US-Vietnamese alliance is not going to happen.

Hanoi understands that Washington wouldn't lay such emphasis on Vietnam if not for China. Vietnam hopes it can gain more leverage by inviting the US into regional affairs in order to maintain a balance with China. As for the US, it hopes Vietnam can cooperate to carry forward the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific strategy. However, there is a mismatch between the US and Vietnam over this matter, because their actions, policy orientations and timing to act in face of China are different. They have failed to form a concerted coalition over the South China Sea dispute.

Washington's Vietnam policy has two contradictory purposes. On the one hand, it tries to use Vietnam to squeeze China's strategic space, but on the other hand, it suppresses Vietnam's requests in the geopolitical game, never ceases bashing Vietnam in human rights issues, and never gives up trying to undermine the communist government. Therefore, although the US and Vietnam keep sending signals that both countries are drawing closer to each other amid the escalating tensions in the South China Sea, their foundation for political trust is wobbly.

After a touch-and-go oil rig crisis between China and Vietnam in 2014, Hanoi has been keeping quite a low profile in the South China Sea dispute. Compared to the Philippines and Japan, Vietnam doesn't respond assertively to US intervention in the dispute. It has even contradicted US calls for a full-scale shutdown of land reclamation by all claimants. On May 17, US State Department made a rare call for Vietnam to halt its construction on disputed South China Sea islands that has been going on over the last two years.

Obama's Vietnam visit is not simply for a better relationship. Since the South China Sea dispute has entered a particular sensitive phase, it is not surprising that Obama will pressure Vietnam for more support.

Generally speaking, the US holds in hand the initiative of US-Vietnamese relationship. Vietnam is turning prominent in Washington's strategic arrangements, but Washington has been attaching the lift of the arms ban to Vietnam's human rights record. This shows that Vietnam has limited value for the US, which is unwilling to compromise to get its support.

Washington hopes it could persuade Vietnam to confront China while slyly plotting regime change in Vietnam. Obama will receive a warm welcome in Vietnam, but Hanoi has its own calculations. It will not only counterbalance China's clout by inviting the US in, but also try to balance Washington's increasing strength by using China and Russia's influence. That is why one week before Obama's visit, the newly-elected Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc visited Russia. Obama's trip won't bring in landmark change to Vietnam's diplomacy.

The author is a professor at the Guangdong Research Institute for International Strategies.

Posted in: Viewpoint

blog comments powered by Disqus