Remarkable changes are afoot in Vietnam, a country that Americans left in humiliating fashion nearly 40 years ago when Saigon fell to communist forces.
Last week, the U.S. Army’s highest-ranking official visited Hanoi to mend old war wounds and to set the stage for a new, friendlier era that goes beyond diplomacy to possibly include arms sales to Vietnam. Here’s what U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told USA Today in a Aug. 18 news report:
“That’s not to say it won’t happen without some effort. But I think there’s a possibility that Vietnam could be a very strong partner. Look at our history with the British or the Germans or the Japanese. It could be like a phoenix rising from the ashes. That’s what I hope happens here in this relationship.”
For many in Seattle’s large Vietnamese-American community, including myself, it’s difficult to view any actions by Vietnam’s government without skepticism. Overseas Vietnamese — predominantly made up of refugees and citizens of the former South Vietnam forced to flee after the communist takeover — have long staged protests and movements for democracy, religious freedom and human rights in their homeland. The regime has largely ignored those pleas— until now.
Vietnam has few options. Its leadership needs allies to fend off China’s aggression in the South China Sea and to increase trade.
Among the reasons to believe the tide has turned and Vietnam is on the verge of a substantive political shift:
- In July, a band of journalists formed the country’s first independent journalism organization to protect freedom of the press and reporting free of government censorship, according to the group Reporters without Borders.
- The U.S. is actively engaged and interested in balancing Beijing’s powers in the region, reports Voice of America. The Vietnamese are just as interested in keeping China at bay and maintaining sovereignty.
- This month, 61 members of the Communist Party signed an open letter calling “for more political openness,” according to The New York Times.
- Vietnam badly wants to join the Trans Pacific Partnership, a major free trade agreement under negotiation by the U.S. and 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific.
This represents a golden opportunity to ensure Vietnam follows through with its obligation to improve labor conditions and its human rights record, which Human Rights Watch warns “deteriorated significantly in 2013.” At least one analyst tells the BBC that Vietnam stands to benefit the most from joining the TPP because of the high volume of apparel and footwear now made and exported to the U.S.
Prominent Vietnamese political dissident and constitutional scholar Cu Huy Ha Vu was released from a Vietnamese prison in April. In a stirring May 16 guest column for The Washington Post, he called for future negotiations to include forcing the Communist Party to release some 400 prisoners of conscience and to repeal a series of laws designed to maintain one-party control.
The U.S. and other TPP countries should insist upon those reforms before diplomatic relations with Vietnam are extended to include the sales of military weapons and membership in a lucrative trade agreement.