As a scholar of comparative political economy and analyst of contemporary Vietnam I am constantly confronted with dilemmas as to how best engage with Vietnam. Staying strictly within the realm of observation, analysis, and explanation is not for me. We are all human beings. We inhabit a world that is inescapably political. And a world that, from time to time, imposes upon us unexpected practical and moral dilemmas that we ignore at our own peril.
Vietnam’s future is the business of Vietnam. There are, however, instances in which foreign ideas and perspectives may have value, and it is in this spirit that I put forward the following ideas with the hopes that they might feed into constructive, forward-looking discussions among Vietnamese about the future of their country.
An Agenda for Institutional Reform in the Current Context
An agenda of institutional reform must be undertaken to place Vietnam on path to a prosperous, secure future. Such an initiative would comprise targeted and systemic elements. It would draw support from the states of such countries as Korea, Japan, Singapore, Australia, the United States, and self-selected members of ASEAN. Where necessary, it would feature partnership with relevant technical assistance and transparency organizations. Investors from Taiwan and Hong Kong should be enthusiastically welcome as efforts to resolve tensions with Beijing continue.
The initiative I have in mind would be non-adversarial in nature and aimed at restoring Vietnam to a high-growth trajectory after a period of slow growth while restoring and building national confidence in the context of present challenges. If other such efforts are already underway, they should be wholeheartedly supported.
Although the chaos and violence of last week are deeply regrettable, the precise causes have, as yet, not been identified. In the mean time, tensions on the seas show now sign of abating in the near term. In the time ahead, Hanoi must work with maximum resolve to address the tensions with Beijing through diplomatic, legal, and creative solutions heretofore unimagined. The latter might include bi-lateral and multi-lateral joint development and preservation initiatives based on sound and enduring international norms and designed to bring economic, environmental, and security benefits to the entire region. A winner-takes-all logic will only produce losers. It will feed the continued militarization the region, with all attendant risks.
Vietnam’s economy is performing far below its potential. That its growth has slowed and now risks seeking permanently to a low-growth trajectory owes to institutional constraints widely recognized by reform-minded Vietnamese within and outside of the state. These include the absence of the rule of law, weak regulatory institutions, and misguided efforts to achieve a state-dominated market economy, as well as a repressive human rights posture that crushes transparency and, not least, the development of a brand of patron-client interest-group politics that has proven vastly counterproductive and wasteful of scarce national resources.
To acknowledge these institutional constraints is not to criticize Vietnam – it is to underscore that if Vietnam is to have the prosperous future its people deserve it must under-take breakthrough reforms.
One of the unforeseen effects of recent tensions on the seas is the clear sense that Vietnam must swiftly reevaluate its strategic outlook. The country must avoid adversarial relations with China. Friendship must be restored and strengthened. But that friendship must stand on the principles of equality and mutual respect. Yet this, in return, will require Vietnam to stand on its own two feet in a way as yet unseen.
Vietnam is at a crossroads. To return to a high-growth trajectory and to live in peace and security and without fear the country must change. To achieve these changes the country needs international support. But to gain that support the country’s leadership must communicate and demonstrate to the world that it is committed to change. Judging by public responses to Prime Minister Dung’s recent statement and based on my knowledge of Vietnam I have every confidence that the Vietnamese people would welcome such changes. What is needed now is political courage.
What, specifically, might occur?
1. A task force should be established led by Bùi Quang Vinh of the Ministry of Planning and Investment and formed in partnership with international development agencies and relevant technical assistance agencies in charting a strategy for effectively and swiftly addressing damage caused by events in Bình Dương, Hà Tĩnh and any other localities as deemed necessary;
2. National leaders working together and with the technical and material support from international development partners should launch a campaign of economic recovery and confidence building that would seek to overcome conditions and causes that fueled the recent disturbances. Information about the precise causes of the disturbances should be made public to the world;
3. Hanoi must signal its readiness to swiftly undertake reforms beyond those the Prime Minister alluded to in his New Year’s message and this commitment must be demonstrated by undertaking real steps to institute the rule of law which, by definition, would require amending the constitution;
4. A time frame for this process should be announced and the introduction of this timeline should be accompanied by the release of prisoners of conscience on a short timetable. While boisterous demonstrations have their place in the world of politics, they are not always helpful. If state leaders demonstrate a commitment to change and to protect rights in line with international human rights norms, all members of the dissident community must accept the responsibility of committing itself to principles of civility and non-violence. Social order is essential, but requires cooperation, trust, and sacrifice;
5. On the basis of demonstrated movements toward the rule of law and adherence to international principles of human rights, states of such countries as Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the United States, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand should immediately elevate the status of their relations with Hanoi;
6. A ‘road map’ for institutional – i.e. constitutional – reforms, to be achieved within one year or less, should be set in place; the group of 72 intellectuals and notable persons who championed constitutional reforms in 2013 or representatives thereof should be invited into consultations as partners. Talented individuals in overseas Vietnamese communities should assist;
7. Diplomacy with Beijing should continue, with an emphasis on the joint development of resources and demilitarization of the Southeast Asia Sea. Militaristic posturing and threats must be replaced by efforts to strengthen – not weaken –international norms. Cooperation and the creative use of incentives by all parties can assist in rationalizing regional claims. Principles of “mutually-assured constraint,” respect, and partnership are essential.
If the above seems politically unfeasible, recognize that the most controversial proposals above measures would win Vietnam immediate international recognition and support. Objections that real reforms in Vietnam can only occur after economic growth has been achieved can be rebutted by an abundance of evidence that it is precisely the absence of such reforms that has slowed Vietnam’s development. Working in the spirit of national unity and partnership with like-minded countries will propel Vietnam into a brighter future. The Vietnamese people deserve no less.
Hanoi, 25 May 2014