With the controversial actions of the Trump administration in the weeks since the inauguration, many are wondering what four years of Trump means for minority groups and the future of the US and other nations alike. The 88 Project explores what impact Trump could have on Vietnam, US-Asia relations, and human rights in the region. Under one scenario, Trump disengages from Vietnam, and Vietnam human rights violations escalate under decreased scrutiny. Disengagement from the US could also mean more regional engagement for Vietnam and China. There is really no scenario under which the US engages Vietnam on human rights for the sole sake of human rights promotion, but a brighter scenario could see the US pushing Vietnam on human rights, even if only minimally, to remind them that other countries are still taking notes– and to provide Trump with domestic leverage. Another possible reality, though, is that regardless of what the US under Trump or any other countries do, Vietnam’s human rights situation will continue on its current course– or worsen.
Up until now, the US and Vietnam have been somewhat of “frenemies,” slowly moving past their troubled history together. The warming of their relationship was strong under Obama, perhaps reaching a peak in 2016 with Obama’s visit to Vietnam and ending of the decades-long ban on the sale of US weapons to the country. As lackluster as Vietnam’s human rights improvements were under Obama’s leadership, pressure from international visits and deals has helped publicize prisoners of conscience and environmental issues. But now, Trump’s “America First” rhetoric leave many wondering if Trump will have much of a relationship with or impact on Asia, and Vietnam, at all. In the following sections, we explore the complicated potentials for involvement- or lack thereof- between the U.S. and Vietnam.
The US turning inwards does not necessarily mean it will scratch out the last several years of progress it’s made in courting Vietnam, at least not intentionally. An inward-focused US could maintain friendly ties with Vietnam without being invested in outcomes there, as it is important for both countries to remain allies in their efforts to counterbalance Chinese influence. In fact, despite their outward differences, Vietnam and the US under Trump share many priorities: economic growth, fostering a pro-business environment, and orchestrating a crackdown on institutions and people that allegedly jeopardize national security. In the US, this has been exemplified in Trump’s travel ban and increasingly forceful immigration actions. In Vietnam, this often takes the form of quelling public protest, arresting outspoken critics of the government, and silencing independent media.