Beyond Obama’s bun cha dinner in Hanoi

Photo: US Dept of State

By Jolene Yeo

While the US president’s stealth escape from the platitude of politics to enjoy a bowl of Vietnamese bun cha in Hanoi has resulted in booming publicity for the noodle restaurant, equally atop on his agenda are the gleaming prospects for bilateral ties for the two nations.

The first official visit to Vietnam by outgoing US President Barack Obama saw the removal of the last legal vestiges of the Vietnam War, as the US lifted the arms embargo on Vietnam. Is the US’s timely efforts to reconcile with their ideological foe to the benefit of Vietnam, or merely securing a lynchpin in the US’s hedge against China?

Defending Vietnam’s sovereignty, or consolidating US power?

The specific mention that the lifting of embargo on armed sales to Vietnam was aimed at normalising ties of Vietnam, a decision “not based on China”, raised the eyebrows of many political pundits. Vietnam’s blatant transgressions of human rights even during Mr Obama’s visit has demonstrated that Vietnam does not deserve the closet ties the US is offering, said John Sifton of the Human Rights Watch.

While the Obama administration has painted their decision as a strategy to help Vietnam defend itself against threats in the South China Sea, this decision has been widely criticised by heavyweights of civil society, as well as The Global Times newspaper, published by the Chinese Communist Party’s official paper People’s Daily.

The Global Times said that the move was aimed at Beijing and called Mr Obama’s assurance to the contrary “a very poor lie”, which exacerbated “the strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing”. On the same note, the Human Rights Watch Asia has also voiced their dissent towards the US’s jettisoning of what remained of its leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam—and that they have basically gotten nothing for it.

What appears to many as Washington’s willingness to relax standards of human rights for the sake of containing China seems to show a strategic deviation from a fixation of ideology in US foreign policy, towards a more pragmatic courtship of countries to secure strategic alliances in face of the China threat.

Ideology and pragmatism

Although the US’s endeavour to normalise relationship with Vietnam has resulted in a great discount on the US’s perceived stance towards defending democracy and the universality of human rights, an alternative school of thought suggests that the political decision to lift the embargo was not one of sacrificing human rights standards in a bid to hedge against China, but rather a mutually beneficial way to exert leverage on Vietnam to respect US’s concern on human rights.

The Diplomat reported that a point often missed in the polarised debate is the fact that with the lifting of the ban, there would be procedures in place for any potential arms transfer to behind—which requires congressional approval under US law.

This can be likened to how the Obama administration’s foreign policy has pursued previously untapped opportunities to better the ties between countries, as in the case of the 2013 US-Tehran nuclear deal, one that saw modest relief of long-time economic sanctions against Tehran (while continuing to apply the toughest sanction, but refraining from imposing new ones).

Often termed as a “diplomatic victory”, the deal allows the US to restrict the quantity of nuclear energy Tehran was allowed to produce, and limit the number of centrifuges needed with enrich uranium, amongst other things.

The US thus put itself in a position of oversight on Iran’s nuclear production, allowing Iran to produce nuclear energy at a pace slower than it would otherwise have done without US intervention, thus minimising the threat of creating mass weapons of destruction.

Thus, instead of the myopic view that a symbolic normalisation of relationship and removal of the last vestiges of the Vietnam War would therefore result carte blanche for weapons sale to Vietnam, it begs one to consider how Vietnam may find itself pressured, if not obliged by international agreements with the US to manage its subversion of human rights.

Ruling the seas: China vs US

While the western media has long portrayed China as the threat to free trade and national sovereignty towards countries in Southeast Asia, the US’s actions raises an almost avant garde notion as to whether the US should now be seen in the same light as China in their eagerness to secure their role as a global leader.

Mr Obama’s visit to Vietnam has sealed the normalisation of relations with a country that happens to be increasingly central to the US strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, given Vietnam’s economic ties to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But Vietnam is a claimant state in the disputed South China Sea, which puts it on a collision course with Beijing.

As China’s effort to show its military might across the seas is frowned upon, is the US trying to achieve an outcome of a similar magnitude, but through diplomatically palatable means?