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June 23, 2007

Visit by Vietnamese President Signals Normalization

by Jim Lobe

Friday's unprecedented – albeit relatively low-profile – visit to the White House by a Vietnamese head of state marks the culmination of a lengthy normalization process between two countries that ended their war 32 years ago.

But while President Nguyen Minh Triet wants to talk mainly about how Washington can spur more US investment his fast-growing economy, his luncheon host, George W. Bush, is being pressed to steer the conversation more towards Vietnam's human rights record and an ongoing crackdown in which dozens of dissidents are believed to have been arrested around the country since the end of last year.

Indeed, human rights, Christian-Right and some Vietnamese-American exile groups lobbied for Triet's visit to be canceled, or at least delayed, and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, whose portfolio includes democracy promotion, as well as the Middle East, backed them up at the White House, according to both US and Vietnamese officials

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, supported by key lawmakers on Capitol Hill, several of whom served in Vietnam, reportedly persuaded Bush that a last-minute cancellation would weaken Triet, who, along with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, is seen by many analysts here as a key leader of a group of economic reformers within the ruling communist party. Both men were elected to their present posts last June.

"Strategically and economically, Vietnam has grown in importance to us over the last decade," one administration official, who asked not to be identified, told IPS last week. "It's not clear what would be gained by humiliating (Triet) and the people around him."

In fact, two prominent dissidents – lawyer Le Quoc Quan and journalist Nguyen Vu Binh – were released from prison in the past ten days, presumably as part of a deal to ensure the visit took place. Activists said they were hoping for many more releases.

Quan was arrested on his return from the United States in March after completing a six-month fellowship at the quasi-governmental National Endowment for Democracy (NED). He was charged with participating in activities to overthrow the government.

Binh, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2002 for posting articles about human-rights conditions in Vietnam on the internet – deemed "spying" by a Vietnamese court – was granted amnesty by Triet earlier this month.

The crackdown against dissidents dates from last November's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Hanoi – where Bush and Triet first met – and intensified after Vietnam's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), a major goal of protracted bilateral talks with the US, in early January.

Among those rounded up was Nguyen Van Ly, a 60-year-old Catholic priest who had been adopted as a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International during three previous prison terms spanning a total of 15 years. He was given an eight-year prison term at the end of March for "conducting propaganda" against the state. Bush himself cited Ly's plight in a speech in Prague two weeks ago.

"This has been the worst crackdown in 20 years," according to Sophie Richardson, an Asia specialist at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), who said victims have included dissidents from throughout the country, including political figures, writers, teachers, workers, religious leaders, and members of ethnic minorities.

"We are of the view that this is the government trying to send a very strong, unambiguous message to all its potential challengers to keep their heads down," she said, adding that the government has been made "particularly nervous" both by efforts of different dissident groups to link up with each other and by a number of workers, including wildcat strikes in assembly plants owned by foreign investors – Vietnam's fastest-growing economic sector.

In the run-up to Friday's visit, however, Triet, who has been unapologetic about Vietnam's human-rights record, repeatedly stressing that his top priority is precisely to encourage more US investment, a point he reiterated in a speech to the US Chamber of Commerce here Thursday.

"We will do our best to help you," Triet, whose delegation includes some 100 Vietnamese business executives and visited the New York Stock Exchange earlier this week, told his audience. "We are striving to create a friendly business environment."

The Vietnamese, whose economy has boomed in recent years, are hoping that Congressional approval last December of permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status, as well as WTO accession, will encourage new trade and investment by US companies.

The US, which established full diplomatic relations with Hanoi in 1995, has become Vietnam's top trading partner with a seemingly insatiable appetite for its textiles, shoes, and seafood exports last year. Two-way trade totaled almost 10 billion dollars last year.

But US investment, at less than two billion dollars last year, has lagged behind. Last year, it ranked 11th, far below Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China, and a number of other Asian neighbors.

The relative lack of interest has been due mainly, according to Murray Hiebert, the Chamber's top Southeast Asia analyst, to frustration by early investors with corruption and Hanoi's slow-moving bureaucracy. But Triet, who came to national prominence through his anti-corruption and reform efforts in Ho Chi Minh City beginning in the late 1990s, and his team appear determined to change that, beginning with the signing of a trade and investment framework agreement here Friday.

"US businesses are very interested," Hiebert told IPS. "They see a country that has been off the radar for some time, with a population of 84 million and a growing middle class of potential consumers, a literate and energetic workforce, and an alternative to China."

Indeed, Intel, the US semiconductor giant, agreed to invest some one billion dollars in an assembly plant last year, and other hi-tech companies are expected to follow, particularly given growing business concern over tensions caused by China's huge trade surplus with the US

Vietnam has also become an increasingly important factor in US long-term strategic calculations vis-à-vis China. Former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who made little secret of his distrust of China's strategic intentions, visited Hanoi a year ago this month. After an absence of 28 years, US naval vessels have made four port calls to Vietnam since 2003, the latest one to celebrate the Fourth of July, the US national day, last year.

Vice President Dick Cheney, who reportedly will join Bush and Triet at lunch, is also believed to favor a more hawkish approach toward Beijing.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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