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Background Briefing: Truong Tan Sang’s Visit to the United States: Has Rebalancing Trumped Human Rights? Carlyle A. Thayer July 12, 2013

In early June Vietnam’s Prime Minister announced at the Shangri -La Dialogue in Singapore that, “it is our desire to establish strategic partnerships with all the permanent members of the UN Security Council…” Vietnam already negotiated strategic partnerships with China, Russia and the United Kingdom. Now Vietnam was signaling that it was seeking to upgrade its relations with the United States and France. In mid-2010 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Hanoi she declared that all the fundamentals were in place for the U.S. to take its relations with Vietnam “to the next level of engagement, cooperation, frien dship, and partnership.” But, she warned, Vietnam’s record on human rights would have to improve first. Since Clinton’s visit Vietnam’s human rights record has gotten worse, especially in the first half of this year. In late 2011 Hanoi-based diplomats said that talks on a strategic partnership had stalled over how human rights should be addressed in the draft agreement. The U.S. side reportedly wanted a separate article on human rights, while Vietnam reportedly wanted human rights subsumed under a more inclusive article dealing with political relations. In July 2012 Secretary Clinton returned to Hanoi and once again criticized its human rights record. Members of her delegation were quoted by the press as stating that bilateral relations would not move forward unless Vietnam’s human rights record improved. At the end of the year the U.S. abruptly pulled out of the annual human rights dialogue with Vietnam. The dialogue was held in April 2013 but no improvement in human rights was discernable in the following months. On June 5th two senior Obama Officials testified on U.S.-Vietnam relations before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific. Joseph Yun, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, stated, “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.” Dan Baer, Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, stated in his testimony:

In April I led a delegation to Vietnam that included representatives from the White House and the Department of Homeland Security for the U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. We emphasized that 2013 represents an opportunity for the government of Vietnam to choose to improve its human rights record, and laid out some of the urgent areas for work. We acknowledged positive steps … But these steps are not enough to reverse a years -long trend of deterioration. Nor have the isolated positive steps formed a consistent pattern. In increasing numbers, bloggers continue to be harassed and jailed for peaceful online speech and activists live under a continual cloud – activists such as Nguyen Van Dai and Pham Hong Son, whom authorities blocked from meeting with me in Hanoi [in April].

It therefore came as a surprise when Agence France Presse revealed on July 11 th that President Barack Obama invited his Vietnamese counterpart, Truong Tan Sang, to visit Washington for a meeting scheduled for July 25. Two days prior to the AFP report, Vietnam announced it was postponing the trial of American-connected highprofile dissident Le Quoc Quan. This appeared a gesture designed to smooth Sang’s visit to the U.S. Why has the U.S. seemingly changed its position on human rights and invited Vietnam’s president to The White House? Clearly Vietnam’s human rights record has not improved to warrant an invitation. And Vietnam cannot fundamentally improve its human right records in the two weeks prior to the visit. The answer why Sang was invited appears to lie in the U.S. policy of rebalancing and the recent uptick in Sino-Vietnamese relations following President Sang’s highprofile visit to Beijing. Vietnam seeks to balance its relations with China and the United States. Hanoi has been lobbying for at least a year for a visit by President Obama. President Sang’s trip to Beijing coupled with the first ever visit by Vietnam’s Chief of the General Staff to Washington, both in June, signal that strategic calculations may be the main driver of this remarkable turn of events. Have the two sides reached a quid pro quo? Some Vietnamese leaders may have concluded that unless the gridlock with the U.S. is broken, Vietnam will have less leverage in dealing with China. Vietnam may be seeking to step up its defence cooperation with the United States. Vietnam’s Chief of the General Staff, Senior Lt. Gen. Do Ba Ty, was accompanied on his visit by the chiefs of air, navy and deputy chief of military intelligence. They may have brought proposals for stepped up defense cooperation and expressions of interest in U.S. military equipment and technology sales. Vietnam wants to have the International Traffic in Arms Regulation (ITAR) restrictions removed. At present Vietnam is permitted to purchase non-lethal items on a case by case basis. This restriction is likely to remain in place. However, ITAR has been amended recently to permit the sale of dual use (military-civilian) equipment and technology. This raises the possibility of defense-related sales to Vietnam. The United States is seeking greater access to Vietnam and would welcome any sign of Hanoi’s willingness to step up military-to-military cooperation. This would advance the U.S. policy of rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific. The U.S. is probably more motivated to obtain Vietnam’s commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership

3 (TPP). The TPP has become the Obama Administration’s main vehicle for promoting economic integration in the Asia-Pacific. While it is speculative to conclude that Hanoi and Washington have reached agreement on a trade-off between defence ties and economic relations, it seems more likely that the United States will step up its assistance to enable Vietnam to make its first commitment to peacekeeping under the auspices of the United Nations. Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung publicly announced Vietnam’s decision to participate in UN peacekeeping missions at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June. President Sang’s will seek to revive Hanoi’s quest for a strategic partnership agreement with the United States during his visit to Washington. This agreement has been under discussion for over two years. If Sang’s visit goes well it could result in moving Vietnam’s relations with the U.S. to the next level prior to the East Asia Summit scheduled to be held in Brunei in October this year. Perhaps Vietnam’s game plan is to advance the relationship in the coming months so President Obama can make a side trip to Vietnam where the two sides will formally sign a strategic partnership agreement. Vietnam will benefit because the agreement will be on its soil, the U.S. will benefit because President Obama will be in Southeast Asia advancing his rebalancing strategy.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Truong Tan Sang’s Visit to the United States: Has Rebalancing Trumped Human Rights?,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, July 12, 2013. All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSIBSCRIBE in the Subject box and send reply. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues to selected clients. It was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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