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Is Obama Moving Too Fast with Vietnam?

Vietnam’s Communist Party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, met with President Obama at the White House on July 7th. Trong’s visit is historic, the first to the United States by a Vietnam Communist Party chief, and a big step in a relationship that has been transformed since the end of the Vietnam War.

The Obama administration would like Trong’s visit to be seen as part of its “pivot” to Asia, the 2011 initiative to redirect America’s strategic focus to a region increasingly dominated by China. The problem with this is that without emphasis on democratic values—an integral part of the pivot according to the president himself—Trong’s Oval Office reception not a strategic gambit but another in a string of concessions to repressive governments for which Obama’s presidency is becoming known.

Since the wave of democratization in Asia in the late 20th century, America has defined its interests and alliances there in terms of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Obama himself said as much when he launched the pivot initiative in late 2011. Speaking to the Australian Parliament, the president stressed the freedom as the “essence of America’s leadership” as well as its relationships with allies in the region.

Today the region is moving in the wrong direction. The momentum for political change in Burma, viewed with great promise, stalled years ago. Thanks to the military’s continued domination of politics, the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will not be allowed to serve as president after this year’s scheduled election. Thailand, long a US ally, has had a military coup. A hopeful sign in Sri Lanka, the electoral defeat of a corrupt, pro-China strongman, is threatened by his attempt at a comeback.

Whether or not to maintain diplomatic relations with autocratic countries is not the issue. The US long ago normalized relations with Vietnam. Last October, Washington lifted its restrictions on some military sales to assist Vietnam in resisting Chinese territorial encroachments in the South China Sea—an interest both Washington and Hanoi share. 

However, the administration can and should moderate the pace and substance of bilateral relations rather than abandon leverage in pursuit of open-ended “engagement.” Obama forfeited valuable political capital early on in Burma’s political opening by visiting the country, welcoming its president to the White House, and lifting sanctions before major reforms were in place. Now he is pursuing a similar approach with Vietnam. Trong’s visit came despite Vietnam’s atrocious human rights record, and even high-level visits by administration officials, and a human rights dialogue, yielded no improvements. That makes it even more important that negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Vietnam maximize America’s considerable trade leverage on behalf of human rights and the rule of law. 

Successful American leadership in Asia depends on upholding a liberal order that advances universal values in rights no less than in trade and security. The way Obama is handling Vietnam will erode rather than uphold his own guiding principle for Asia policy. It might deliver short-term benefits to a president pursuing a “bucket list” of changes to US relationships with repressive regimes in Cuba, Burma, and Iran, but the long-term consequences will challenge Obama’s successors.

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