The United States has criticized Vietnam over human rights violations and moves to suppress internet dissidents, threatening to raise tensions and cool relations between the two nations. This comes shortly after Vietnam has reached out to the United States to lift its weapons embargo on the country. The U.S. finds itself in a tricky position. Should it arm Vietnam to buffer China and ignore the violations? Or should America take a firmer stance on such issues?


America – Vietnam relationship

American and Vietnamese relations are complex, to say the least. The Vietnam War claimed approximately 50,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Vietnamese lives. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of China, however, relations have generally been moving forward.

Vietnam has been making progress in both economic and political terms. The country has been recording strong growth and the cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Min City are emerging as major regional hubs for trade, business and tourism. Still, the Vietnamese government remains under the influence of the Communist Party, which is heavily involved in the economy and has shown a heavy hand when dealing with its citizens.

Communist controlling China and Vietnam

Vietnam itself could be an important ally for the United States in its efforts to balance power in the regional against China. Despite the fact that both China and Vietnam are controlled by Communist parties, the two nations have long been bitter rivals.

Indeed, after having just won the Vietnam War, Vietnam fought the Sino-Vietnamese war with China. The war occurred after Vietnam invaded Cambodia. The Chinese invaded Vietnam, with the Vietnamese engaging in gorilla warfare against the superior Chinese forces. The Chinese reached as far as Hanoi before declaring that they had achieved their punitive objects and withdrew from Vietnam.

The tensions and rivalries between Vietnam and China could make the Vietnamese an important ally for the United States. Still, Vietnam has a spotty human rights record that America is unwilling to tolerate. Vietnam has one of the highest official rates of detained bloggers and internet activists in the world. So far, in 2013, the Vietnam government has detained more than 40 people, second only to China. Likely, other nations, such as Syria and Saudi Arabia, have detained more, but there are no official records.

The United States has stated that for relations to move forward, Vietnam will have to improve its human rights record. Specifically, the Vietnamese government would like the United States to lift its embargo on lethal weapons, a move the Obama administration has acknowledged that it is willing to consider, if the Vietnamese improve their human rights record.

Political interests of America

Over the long-haul, it is in the geo-political interests of the United States to see a well-armed Vietnam as the country could be a valuable ally in balancing power against China’s emerging regional ambitions. The Vietnamese share a border with China and are heavily involved in the South China Sea dispute. The Vietnamese have also already shown their willingness to stand up to Chinese ambitions for regional domination.

Still, the United States has increasingly been focusing on the human rights records of its allies and would-be allies. At the heights of the Cold War, the United States government was accused of supporting violent regimes across Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. While supporting such regimes may have seemed expedient at the time, these moves heavily damaged America’s national image abroad and most of the violent regimes that were supported, such as Pinochet in Chile, have been swept away.

The United States is looking to avoid tarnishing its image abroad. With the world shifting towards increasing multi-polarity with powerful regional actors capable of challenging U.S. dominance. Still dealing with the political and financial costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government may be coming to realize that it can no longer act as a supreme military power, but must instead act a political power with a more diverse set of tools.

Increasing the power and scope of America’s image and diplomatic influence is becoming increasingly important for the United States. By using human rights, ideals, and market economics, the American government may be able to wield a considerable amount of influence without having to use its expensive military might.  In order to do so, however, the United States must take firmer stands on human rights records. The Obama administration seems to be doing just this in demanding that Vietnam improve its human rights if it wants to see the arms embargo lifted.