Although 2012 is winding down, it seems the maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea are still running hot. China’s passport map dispute, coupled with its intentions to begin policing its “territory” from Hainan, has heightened tensions in the region -- and all of this on top of current territorial disputes with neighbors such as Japan.

For all the noise, all the bluster and cable cutting, Southeast Asia remains in a state of relative peace. In a year that saw the continuation of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria devolve further into violence, as popular protests against corrupt regimes, new and old, continue, governments from countries like Vietnam will enter another year, confident in their longevity.

Yet, for the Vietnamese government, they should be wary of the horizon, for all of this might simply be the calm before the storm. The South China Sea disputes, an economic crisis and clear government mismanagement suggest rough waters ahead for Vietnam’s leaders. Should the government fail to address the concerns and needs of its citizens, it may find itself besieged by demands for change unlike any other period in history.

Grievances against the state

Once a booming economy, Vietnam has suffered from both the global financial crisis and economic mismanagement. Crony capitalism and corruption, wasteful spending, and the inherent failures of Vietnam’s political system have all contributed to the country’s downturn.

Lack of transparency and accountability make holding the government responsible for its actions difficult. Moreover, a deteriorating human rights record and lack of respect for the rule of law, and the government’s continued defiance in the face of these criticisms on top of this, all contribute to reasons why change is in order.

Although some illusion of freedom is offered by the government in allowing the people to say what they wish, within reason, larger efforts to organize are promptly neutralized, so as to prevent a snowballing effect. Organized protests are shut down, even if they target China instead of the government.

One would think that the Vietnamese government would, at the very least, allow some of these protests to occur, if only to maintain the illusion of a “free” and “open” country. Although the government and Communist Party must balance between maintaining its relationship with China and appeasing nationalist sentiments, it has done neither.

Vietnam remains as one of the most vocal opponents to China in the South China Sea disputes alongside the Philippines, while at the same time it has taken every opportunity to snuff out popular protests against China’s activities in the region. Understandably, the schizophrenic nature of the Vietnamese government’s actions has the people wondering just what their leaders have planned. Moreover, in whose interests are they acting?

Of course, the Vietnamese people are not ignorant of their government’s failures. Unfortunately, the crony capitalism, corruption, and economic mismanagement that have occurred are taken as normal; and efforts to speak out against the government are quashed with severe consequences for those who step out of line.

The Communist Party has thus far survived by being careful and staying below the radar. It is neither as militant as North Korea’s nor is it as oppressive as Burma’s government was until recently. By keeping a finger on the pulse of the nation and the international community, the Communist Party has managed to play a game of give and take, reforming where necessary, so as to remain in control. For the most part, this strategy seems to have succeeded.

Yet, the government cannot take the people’s obedience for granted. In an age of Facebook, Twitter, and tech-savvy citizens, change is often simply one post away.

A “Vietnamese Spring”

If a similar revolution were to occur in Vietnam, it is unlikely to incur widespread revolt.. Despite the global financial crisis, Asia has emerged from the worldwide recession in fairly proper form. In addition, by 2030, the region is expected to surpass the West in gross domestic production and technology investment. All is well and all is expected to be well; therefore, any revolt would likely be specific to the nation at hand (in this case Vietnam) rather than as a result of wider regional trends.

Should a revolution occur, it is hard not to imagine what the United States and China would do in response. would the US help transition the country to a more pro-West government? Would China hope to install a more pro-China government or help maintain the current regime?

Presently, despite repeated attempts to encourage the Vietnamese government to improve its human rights record, Hanoi continues to look the other way. Despite the appearance of warming relationships, both countries continue to regard the other with distrust. A regime change could benefit the US, but would it risk involving itself with China so near? China is no longer an impoverished, peasant nation as it was during the Vietnam War. More importantly, would the US even want to involve itself in Vietnam again?

As demonstrated with Syria, the US has so far refused to get drawn into the Syrian civil war, in large part because it is unsure who the rebels are. Yet, in the event that Vietnam undergoes a revolution of its own, it is unlikely that Washington would need to worry about Vietnam becoming a safe haven for terrorist cells.

Moreover, should the Communist Party become so toxic, so unacceptable to the people that wholesale change is desired, the US is unlikely to pass up the opportunity to groom a new ally. With a friendly Vietnam, the US would gain a crucial partner in its pivot to the Western Pacific.

Rather, a concern for the US would be that China, sensing an opportunity for change as well, would attempt to install a government sympathetic to Beijing’s strategy in the region. Such a scenario is not out of the question, and it is not a stretch to believe that certain members of the Communist Party of Vietnam hold some tacit agreement with their Chinese counterparts. Still, in the event of a regime change, the popular sentiment in Vietnam has been opposition to China and Chinese interference. Therefore, it may be that China would do something to help keep the current government afloat or do nothing at all.

Even if Beijing has no grand desire to shape the political landscape of Vietnam, it is unlikely to take kindly to American activities along its borders. If the US should take part in any political revolt in Vietnam, it must take great care in understanding the dynamics between it and Vietnam, and Vietnam and China.

The Vietnamese people are wary of any outside influence, especially China, but they are no less suspicious of the US. That being said, if they could be assured support in resisting China’s increasing assertiveness, they might prove receptive to American assistance. Conversely, the US must not micromanage Vietnam’s internal affairs, for doing so would jeopardize any hope of a productive and long-term relationship between the two countries.

All of this, of course, is hypothetical. A popular uprising in Vietnam is far away in the future, if at all. However, if the present government refuses to change and address the needs of its people, it could find itself on the receiving end of a “Vietnamese Spring.”

By Khanh Vu Duc - Asia Sentinel - December 14, 2012