Domestic repression, regional instability – tense year in prospect for Vietnam


China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, has been on manoeuvres in the western Pacific, symbol of of its growing naval power.

There was a time – not so long ago – when cosier relations between Hanoi and Washington inspired hope of a more liberal political climate developing in Vietnam.

Such optimism now looks fanciful, as Vietnam mulls tacking back towards China, and appears to take inspiration from President Xi Jinping’s harsh crackdown on political dissent.

The hallmark of Vietnamese diplomacy is caution – treading the perilous path between its mighty neighbour to the north and former enemy across the Pacific.

That task has now become more treacherous than any-one could have predicted, given the seismic geopolitical shocks already beginning to reverberate around Asia.

Vietnam sought and achieved much from Washington during the final year of the Obama administration: an end to the US arms embargo, successful negotiation of the TPP, a high profile visit by the president himself.

This was all accomplished without an open breach with China. Despite high tension in the South China Sea, the Communist parties in Beijing and Hanoi worked hard to repair their damaged relations and keep dialogue open.

Maintaining such a delicate balance in the harsh new international climate will be much more challenging.

Posturing, brinkmanship and instability

Donald Trump has signalled an aggressive new approach towards China that threatens to sweep away hopes for regional stability, and any prospect of a nuanced and gradual accommodation of China’s growing power.

It is possible that by playing the Taiwan card, raising the prospect of trade war with Beijing, and confronting China militarily in the South China Sea, Mr Trump will eventually sit down with Mr Xi – Godfather style – and negotiate a grand bargain.

In such a scenario, clear lines will be drawn on North Korea, Taiwan, the Spratlys, trade, cyber warfare – and China and the United States will settle down in their own spheres of influence.

Not many will be putting money on such a tidy outcome.

Given the more likely prospect of posturing, brinkmanship and instability, Vietnam may decide it has no choice but to drift back towards the Beijing orbit.

Vietnam has little reason to hope for much consideration from a Trump administration that stresses protectionism and “America First” policies. Mr Trump has already said his first act will be to scrap the TPP, the trade agreement that promised big advantages for Vietnam and promised to tie it closer into the American sphere.

Alarming degree of uncertainty

The arrival on the scene last year of another unpredictable populist, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, also seemed to undermine Vietnam’s position.

Unexpectedly, however, it might now serve to smooth Vietnam’s slide towards China.

Some analysts believe Mr Duterte’s decision to end confrontation with China in the South China Sea will persuade the Chinese to adopt a more diplomatic, less militaristic, approach to the disputed waters. Such an easing of tension could make it easier for Vietnam to reach its own accommodation with Beijing.

No-one, however, can feel confident in predicting the future decisions of either Mr Duterte or Mr Tump – an alarming degree of uncertainty is a new reality that all sides will have to live with.

During negotiations for the now moribund TPP, Vietnam eased repression of independent bloggers and civil activities, apparently sensitive to the disapproval of its American interlocutors.

All such scruples have long since been discarded.

Vietnam now seems confident that human rights homilies mouthed in western capitals can be brushed aside.

The abrupt termination of the career of the Western inclined prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, signalled a harsh new crackdown on the nascent civil society movement and those calling for political pluralism.

It is hard to conjure a scenario in which the Vietnamese leadership, back in the grip of hardliners and Communist party ideologues, and cautiously mending fences with Beijing, will abruptly opt for a more liberal political climate and see the need to tolerate criticism of its policies.