Thursday, October 4, 2012

The future of US relations with Vietnam

One of the many aspects of US foreign policy that may be affected by the upcoming presidential election is an area that has received very little attention.

While the usual suspects — Iran, China, Cuba and Syria — dominate what passes for debate over foreign policy in the US, neither presidential candidate has had much to say about Vietnam.
And why should they? Over the last decade the US relationship with Vietnam has steadily improved, in line with the latter’s cautious progress toward economic liberalisation, democratisation and respect for human rights. During its first term the Obama administration has proved more than willing to extend a few diplomatic carrots Vietnam’s way.

In December 2010, Michael Michalak, then US Ambassador to Vietnam, used a Human Rights Day speech in Hanoi to praise the ‘strong improvements’ that had been made by the Vietnamese government in its protection of religious freedom. In 2011, the US State Department rejected calls by the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, Human Rights Watch, and various Vietnamese–American groups to re-designate Vietnam as a ‘country of particular concern’ (Vietnam was first removed as a CPC in 2006 on the basis that it had made ‘significant improvement towards advancing religious freedom’). US Trade Representative Ron Kirk has even been negotiating with the Vietnamese government about its possible admission to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In a neat demonstration of the budding friendship between the two countries, in late 2011 Vietnam opened a new consulate in New York, while the US added a much-touted ‘American Center’ to its consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.

But after this year’s elections, US–Vietnam diplomatic relations may stray from the path of normalisation. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has so far had little to say about this diplomatic embrace, but there is good reason to believe that a change in the White House may dictate a change of direction for bilateral relations.

In January 2012 House Republicans voiced serious concerns about what they labelled as the Obama administration’s indifference to growing human rights abuses in Vietnam. During several public hearings on the subject, Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee pointed to three areas where they believed the new Vietnamese government, elected in 2011, was going backward in its respect for human rights.

First, the new government has stepped up its suppression of freedom of expression and association. Writers, human rights defenders, land rights activists, anti-corruption campaigners and religious and democracy advocates now routinely face police harassment and unlawful detention. In 2011 alone, 33 peaceful activists were sentenced collectively to 185 years in prison. On September 24 2012, three Vietnamese bloggers, Nguyen Van Hai, Ta Phong Tan, and Phan Thanh Hai, were sentenced to up to 26 years imprisonment after a closed trial of just a few hours. They had been held without trial since 2010 for writing blogs, such as ‘Justice and Truth’, that were deemed hostile to the Vietnamese government. Censorship of print news and the Internet has become both more common and sophisticated.

Second, arbitrary detention, police brutality and torture have become increasingly common tools for suppressing dissent. John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, argues that police brutality is now endemic in Vietnam, with at least 13 people dying in police custody in 2011. Political and religious detainees are often tortured to elicit confessions, held incommunicado prior to trial, and denied access to family and lawyers.

Finally — and this appears to be of most concern to Congressional Republicans — the new Vietnamese government has begun cracking down on religious freedom. Though forced renunciations were officially halted in 2005, they have continued in practice. Under a far-reaching ban on all religious activity deemed to oppose ‘national interests’, state police have increasingly interfered in the practices of Buddhist Hoa Hao groups, the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, the Cao Dai church, Falun Gong, Catholic Redemptorist churches and Protestant and Catholic Montagnards. In May 2011, alarmed by the prospect of the million-strong Hmong community converting to Christianity, the Vietnamese government went so far as to send troops to seal off thousands of Hmong Christians in Huoi Khon Village. Religious campaigners are also frequently arrested: at least 15 Catholics affiliated with Redemptorist churches in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were arrested in late 2011.

These recent reversals in Vietnam’s human rights record have prompted US Congressional Republicans to call for a tougher stance toward the Vietnamese government. Chris Smith, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, has urged the State Department to redesignate Vietnam as a ‘country of particular concern’. His subcommittee also expressed support for the establishment of a satellite consular office in the Vietnamese highlands, to handle human rights complaints on the ground.

A number of US Democrats also support a tougher stance on Vietnam. In March 2012 the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed the Vietnam Human Rights Bill to prohibit any increase in non-humanitarian assistance to Vietnam above Fiscal Year 2011 levels, unless its government ‘makes substantial progress in establishing a democracy and promoting human rights’. The Bill has since been passed in the House of Representatives but awaits approval by the Senate.

Hillary Clinton expressed the view prior to the 2011 East Asia Summit that Vietnam’s human rights record remained a significant impediment to improving bilateral relations — a point she reiterated in a visit to Vietnam in July 2012. Yet the Obama administration has not indicated whether it intends to depart from the path toward normalisation of ties with Vietnam. The hopes of House Republicans who wish for a little more stick and a little less carrot in the US–Vietnam relationship may be realised if they can wrest control of the White House in November.

Patrick Bateman was a Research Fellow in East Asian and Pacific Affairs for US Senator Marco Rubio, and a researcher for the former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard. He now works for a human rights agency in London.

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