A Problematic Visit From Hanoi

Obama is once again giving away the store before receiving policy changes.

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Truong Tan Sang.jpg
Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang, left, shakes hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing on Thursday, June 20, 2013. Vietnam's president was being feted by China's leaders on a visit through Friday as Beijing continues to shun another rival for South China Sea territory that has challenged its claims on legal grounds, the Philippines.

On July 25, President Barack Obama will welcome Truong Tan Sang, Vietnam's president and Communist Party Second Secretary, to the White House. Meanwhile, back in Vietnam, human rights activists, bloggers, Catholics, ethnic minorities and lawyers are experiencing a surge in persecution.

Among Vietnam's political prisoners are Cu Huy Hu Va, a lawyer who has sued the government and is believed to be in bad health, and Le Quoc Quan, a blogger and former visiting fellow at the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. And they are not alone. According to Human Rights Watch, there have been more people convicted of political offenses in the first five months of 2013 – more than 50 – than in all of last year.

Sang's White House visit is part of the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia, a policy aimed at countering China's growing military, economic and political influence in the region. Obama insists the policy to enhance and maintain U.S. power in the Asia-Pacific is rooted in a democratic vision for the region. Telling the Australian Parliament that America was "all in" in the Asia-Pacific, he alluded to democratic transitions in South Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia (but omitted Taiwan) in the last century. Communism and fascism  failed, he said, because "they ignore the ultimate source of power and legitimacy – the will of the people."  

While the president and his senior officials make remarks like these to friendly audiences in Canberra, at democracy conferences and on Capitol Hill, they downplay democracy and its strategic importance in face-to-face meetings with leaders like Sang. Nor has Obama followed up on his rhetoric with action.  

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should China Be Considered America's Number one Adversary?]

What should Obama do to bring policy into line with his rhetoric? Where Vietnam is concerned, gestures like state visits, trade and advances in military ties should follow, not precede, political reforms and human rights concessions by Vietnam's ruling communist party. Although the administration likes to cite Burma as a success of its pivot policy, the outcome there is still in doubt. As the pace of change has slowed, the administration finds it has already given up leverage by lifting sanctions and exchanging presidential visits before vital constitutional amendments and military reforms have been made.

Asia is home to more people living under democratic rule than in any other region of the globe, not just home to autocratic China. "We should take as much strategic advantage of that fact while dealing with rising power," says Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute. "It's that democratic reality that will ultimately make the pivot viable, not one-off 'realist' deals with a country like Vietnam."    

Above all, the U.S. needs to understand that China's challenge is ultimately a political one. China's combination of authoritarian rule and economic success is a model for developing countries and its influence an excuse for dissembling for others. Ignoring China's political repression and communist governance tells our friends and adversaries that the U.S. is insincere, weak or both. An Asia-pivot policy divorced from democratic values "will play into the Chinese Communist Party's nationalist narrative, according to which the United States is selfishly conspiring with its allies in the region to encircle and contain China, thwarting its rise as a world power," Tyler Roylance of Freedom House argues. "How else to explain an American embrace of one Communist regime at the apparent expense of another?"

[See a collection of political cartoons on Chinese hacking.]

"You cannot be a great speaker unless you are a great doer," Walter Russell Mead wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently, citing Obama's inaction on Syria and Iran after soaring speeches invoking freedom from tyranny and universal values. "Quit thinking of speechmaking as an act in itself," Mead advised the president," and begin to think of it as the verbal expression of an action already under way." 

The invitation to Sang was ill-advised considering what is happening in Vietnam. Since the visit is going forward, it is imperative that Obama speak publicly and unambiguously to Sang about the role of democracy in U.S. Asia policy. And then Obama should act as if he means what he says.

Ellen Bork is Director of Democracy and Human Rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) in Washington, D.C. FPI's website is www.foreignpolicyi.org.

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