Harmonious encounter: U.S.-Vietnam differences likely to be downplayed in presidential visit – The Edge Review


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When Vietnam hosted the East Asia Summit in 2010, the keynote press conference was a joint appearance by then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Pham Gia Khiem.

In a small side room of the cavernous Hanoi National Convention Centre, an untimely technical hitch interrupted the English-to-Vietnamese translation of Clinton’s remarks, which were being relayed through headsets to the many non-Anglophone local journalists scribbling away, elbow-to-elbow, in the packed chamber.

Perhaps it was purely a coincidence – or not – that the translation went silent after the announcement of some big American investments in Vietnam, but before Clinton’s terse sermon about Vietnam’s human rights record started.

Will the headsets fail again when Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang meets his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama in Washington on July 25? Perhaps shared concerns about a rising China – not to mention revelations that U.S. authorities collaborate with Internet giants such as Google and Facebook to spy on people around the world – might soften America’s inclination to air its concerns about human rights issues this time around.

Obama invited Truong Tan Sang to the U.S. not long after the Vietnamese president – increasingly a high-profile figure internationally amid whispers of an internecine power struggle in the Communist Party between factions loyal to him and others backing embattled Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung – visited China, where both sides agreed to set up a hotline to manage fishing disputes over the disputed South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam.

Washington need not have worried too much, however, that East Asia’s market-Communist fraternity might be cooperating in an effort to push back against America’s so-called “pivot to Asia.” In early July, two weeks after the Beijing meeting, Vietnam accused China’s navy of damaging a fishing boat that it said was operating in Vietnamese waters – an accusation that followed a statement earlier by Hanoi saying that Indian energy companies had the right to explore for oil and gas in what Vietnam considers its exclusive economic zone – waters in the South China Sea that China claims.

The president’s visit to the U.S. comes on the back of a high-level visit by Vietnam’s military chief of staff to Washington last month, which occurred almost simultaneously with a congressional hearing on human rights in Vietnam. At that hearing, Joseph Yun, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said “We have underscored with the Vietnamese leadership that the American people will not support a dramatic upgrading of our bilateral ties without demonstrable progress on human rights.”

That timing shows the Janus-faced nature of the relationship between the former enemies – a duality that is likely to be on show when Truong Tan Sang visits Washington next week.

“Relations between the two governments — Vietnam and the U.S. — are multi-stranded. Hence, differences between them over human rights issues, for instance, do not necessarily override or preclude cooperation between them about other matters,” said Benedict Kerkvliet, Emeritus Professor at Australian National University’s School of International, Political and Strategic Studies, in an email to The Edge Review.

For its part, Vietnam can point to a public debate, albeit limited, about amending the country’s constitution and a growing willingness to allow lawmakers criticise Communist Party leaders, if Truong Tan Sang wants to counter any criticism from Obama about Vietnam’s ongoing clampdown on dissenting journalists and bloggers. In the latest chapter of that witch-hunt, a 26-year-old female blogger, Nguyen Hoang Vi, was recently beaten unconscious in Ho Chi Minh City by five men suspected of being police officers, only weeks after experiencing a similar assault.

Obama will, of course, make the obligatory noises about human rights, but don’t expect these concerns to stall discussions on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), a proposed Pacific-rim free trade pact that Washington is promoting and which would include Vietnam – but not China. It’s as likely that the two sides will wrangle over clothing and footwear imports, which Vietnam says are effectively blocked from the U.S. by high tariffs, which could cool Hanoi’s interest in the TPP.

The U.S., with which Hanoi runs a US$15.6 billion trade surplus, is Vietnam’s second biggest trade partner after China. Vietnam certainly wants to maintain that export momentum, given that its economy is sputtering and the government is stalling on reforms of corrupt, loss-making state-owned enterprises. Failure to push forward with reforms caused the International Monetary Fund cut its 2014 growth forecast for Vietnam to 5.2 per cent from 5.8 per cent previously. Vietnam wants more American investment, as well, along the lines of the major Intel and Boeing projects Sec. Clinton talked about in late 2010. The latest World Bank report on Vietnam says that the FDI/GDP ratio “declined from a record 11.8% in 2008 to about 7.7% in the first half of 2013,” a sign of the times that will hardly be offset by McDonalds announcing it will soon hang its golden arches in Communist-ruled Vietnam – in a joint-venture with the Prime Minister’s son in law, no less – following on from Starbucks opening its first outlet in coffee-producing Vietnam earlier this year.

Regardless of disagreements on human rights issues and trade, both sides are tactful when it comes to diplomatic choreography. With Obama due to travel to Brunei and Malaysia later this year, smart money is betting on the announcement of a stopover in Vietnam while Troung Tan Sang is in Washington.

For their part, the Vietnamese have taken steps to diffuse possible controversy during the trip, postponing the scheduled July 9 trial of Le Quoc Quan, a Catholic lawyer and supporter of some the country’s best known jailed dissidents, such as Cu Huy Ha Vu, another lawyer whose birth-right as the son of a member of Ho Chi Minh’s government did not prevent his jailing in 2011 on charges of “propaganda against the state.”

Both Cu Huy Ha Vu and Le Quoc Quan have gone on hunger strike in protest against their detention.

Le Quoc Quan was arrested in December on tax charges, a sort of a black parody of how the US authorities famously nabbed gangster Al Capone, and one, perhaps, that the former Chicago-based Obama might relate to.

If you can’t get him on the real stuff, get him on the taxes – that’s a familiar tale in Vietnam when it comes to jailing other writers and opponents of one-party rule, such as Nguyen Van Hai (better know by his pen-name Dieu Cay, or Peasant’s Pipe).

“No one believes Quan was rightly arrested for tax evasion,” says Le Quoc Quyet, Quan’s brother.

“I believe that my brother’s arrest is part of a long and continuous campaign to silence his voice and stop his work in promoting democracy and defending human rights activists,” Le Quoc Quyet told The Edge Review.

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