Students wave Vietnamese national flags during a military parade as part of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam, April 30, 2015.
Kham / Reuters

Next week, U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Long planned (and once deferred), Obama's trip could prove to be a milestone in a two-decade path toward reconciliation. It is conceivable that Vietnam's communist regime will sign up as a de facto ally of the United States; if that happens, credit China's ambition as the proximate cause. More likely, though, Hanoi won’t yet be ready to pay the quid pro quo of strategic intimacy with Washington—for example, giving permission to set up naval logistics facilities or allow rotational deployments at Cam Ranh Bay, or promising a meaningful loosening of restrictions on popular expression and a broad charter for civil society organizations, or even both.

The Hanoi regime is under new management. In January, after several years of internal turmoil, a party congress forced two-term Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung into retirement. Dung had campaigned for a promotion to the Communist Party's top job, general secretary, by branding himself as the reformer who could lead Vietnam to prosperity. The party's old guard saw instead an unscrupulous opportunist. It united at last around the incumbent general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong. Granted another five-year term and carte blanche to populate party and government posts with his supporters, Trong aims to now close the distance between party and government by reviving a collective leadership system.

As soon as Dung's supporters were routed, Trong and his colleagues in the Politburo (the party executive committee) also signaled that they, no less than their predecessors, would be looking to accelerate Vietnam's integration into the world economy. That includes meeting Vietnam's fairly daunting obligations under the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and keeping the door wide open to foreign investment. In this respect, party conservatives have come a long way since the 1990s, when, fearing Washington’s intentions, they dragged their heels on reestablishing relations and striking a bilateral trade agreement.

On national security, Vietnam's strategic directions are less clear, because Trong and other guardians of party ideology have previously been so diligent about retaining Chinese favor. In this, they relied on ideological affinity and courtship tactics honed through a 1,000-year asymmetrical relationship with a giant neighbor. Trong and his conservative allies were thus slow to respond when, since 2009 or so, a revanchist China aimed to establish its hegemony over the South China Sea, a 1.4-million-square-mile expanse that stretches from the Taiwan Strait to Singapore and along Vietnam's 2,000-mile coast. 

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong following their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington July 7, 2015.
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong following their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington July 7, 2015.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters
Shrugging off a long string of provocations and the fury of citizens who wanted to "stand up to China," the conservatives insisted for years on maintaining a conciliatory posture. Not until the summer of 2014, when China deployed a heavily guarded deep-sea drilling rig to explore for oil and gas off Vietnam's coast, did they agree with other political leaders that to resist Chinese aggression, Hanoi should seek closer ties with the United States.

A year later, coincidentally as China began to convert several South China Sea reefs into artificial islands, replete with airstrips and other paramilitary facilities, and as Dung pressed his bid to lead the party, Trong visited Washington. At the White House, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden assured the party leader that the United States respects Vietnam's political institutions. Their message, in plain talk: Vietnam's communist regime would have nothing to fear from aligning with the United States against China.

Trong's trip was a win for both nations. Washington believed that ready access to Vietnam's ruling party institutions (before, it had dealt only with the government) would stabilize the relationship in the event of political changes in Vietnam. Hanoi, even while insisting that its “three no’s” policy (no alliances, no foreign bases on Vietnamese soil, no reliance on any nation to fight another) remained intact, sent a strong signal to Beijing: Vietnam has other options.

As Obama prepares to leave for a high-profile three-day visit to Vietnam before the G-7 summit meeting in Japan, sources in Washington say that the United States may agree to scrap remaining restrictions on arms sales to Vietnam. That's possible, but the United States would want something substantial in return. To this end, the Pentagon has had its eye on using Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay.

The price of a U.S. strategic guarantee may no longer seem unreasonably high to Hanoi.
The U.S. State Department evidently has its own goal: securing a verifiable pledge by Hanoi to ease up on civil liberties; and it has some unusual leverage. When the U.S. Congress approved the 1976 International Trafficking in Arms Regulations, regulations on the export and import of defense-related goods and services, the restrictions were expressly linked to progress in human rights. Congress specified that the president could lift barriers only on the recommendation of the State Department. That may explain the May 9–10 visit to Hanoi by Daniel Russel, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Tom Malinowski, Russel’s counterpart at the State Department bureau in charge of human rights issues. 

Hanoi's tight grip on political life is a liability for the Obama administration as it seeks congressional ratification of the TPP. Human rights campaigners, labor unions, and two million Vietnamese Americans all ask why Washington should grant special trade privileges to a totalitarian regime. Verifiable pledges by Hanoi to enact and abide by legislation granting a broad charter to independent civil society organizations, or to drop criminal code provisions that undermine civil rights guaranteed by Vietnam's own constitution, or both, could plausibly tip the balance toward TPP ratification.

The price of a U.S. strategic guarantee may no longer seem unreasonably high to Hanoi. Strategic necessity has pushed Hanoi closer to the United States. Vietnam is in a Chinese vise. It is squeezed on its ocean frontier by Beijing's campaign to extend its sway over the South China Sea. Inland, China has built a cascade of dams on the upper Mekong in its Yunnan Province and is now urging Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia to speed construction of 11 more hydroelectric dams lower down the river. Stifling the mighty river's annual flooding has begun to exact a heavy toll on Vietnam's fabulously fertile Mekong Delta.

Under present circumstances, Hanoi cannot rely on the United States to intervene against China’s smaller aggressions and perhaps not even in the event of a Chinese move against Vietnam's offshore oil infrastructure. U.S. military assets are tied down in the Middle East, the northern half of the South China Sea is a particularly problematic place to confront China, and the U.S. public just doesn't want more foreign entanglement, especially with what many perceive as a corrupt third world police state.

But it is conceivable that Vietnam would try to shift the calculus by giving Obama pledges on civil rights issues. Trong and his colleagues aren't too concerned about intraparty accusations that they are squishy on matters of internal security. They are, however, vulnerable to complaint from the public, which has grown considerably savvier over the last decade. That's mainly the consequence of ready access to the Internet, which has freed up the flow of news and facilitated public conversation.

Demonstrators, holding signs, say they are demanding cleaner waters in the central regions after mass fish deaths in recent weeks, in Hanoi, Vietnam May 1, 2016.
Demonstrators, holding signs, say they are demanding cleaner waters in the central regions after mass fish deaths in recent weeks, in Hanoi, Vietnam May 1, 2016.
Kham / Reuters
Take, for example, the regime’s fumbling of its first big test: an environmental accident in early April that decimated fish stocks on the central Vietnamese coast. Perhaps for fear of scaring off foreign investors, ministries have since made a show of investigating every possible explanation for the great fish kill except what the public has come to believe is the obvious cause: toxic chemicals released into the sea at a huge foreign-owned steel mill that is just going into operation. Now it seems that unless the originators step forward and confess to an accident, the sudden death of 100 tons of free-swimming and farmed fish is destined to remain—officially, at least—a mystery.

On three Sundays this month, unprecedented numbers of demonstrators have been marching in Vietnamese cities. Bearing placards that proclaim the right of fish to clean water and the right of the Vietnamese people to transparent government, they've confronted phalanxes of riot police.  In many cases, they've been beaten up. That's not at all how the regime intended to set the stage for Obama's visit.

To lay the foundation for a strong and enduring relationship with the United States, the new leadershipneeds only to trust in the loyalty and good sense of Vietnam's own citizens and act accordingly. That's an unconventional but perfectly rational step, because the Communist Party's best hope to stay in power permanently is to become something else: a political institution that's less corrupt, more transparent, and increasingly intent on delivering freedom and prosperity to Vietnam’s citizens.

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