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Update No: 180 - (26/07/12)

Recent high level visits to Vietnam by senior US officials have focused attention on the growing strategic importance of each country to the other in the face of a resurgence of Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea. But while Vietnam is anxious to obtain greater access to US weaponry, Washington has made it clear that any further development of the relationship will depend on significant improvements in Hanoi’s human rights record. For the immediate future at least, the outcome is not encouraging.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ASEAN Summit Meeting, held in Phnom Penh on July 13 failed to reach agreement on a joint approach towards Chinese claims in the South China Sea, or East Sea as it is known in Vietnam, or the West Philippines Sea as Manila prefers. At least nobody is likely to go to war over a name.

The outcome was unsurprising not least because Cambodia, a close ally of China, was hosting the meeting. It was the first time in ASEAN’s 45-year history that the leaders of this 10-nation bloc failed to issue a joint communiqué.

As we have reported previously, China and Taiwan claim practically the entire sea (both on behalf of ‘China’) while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all lay partial claims to areas that correspond broadly to their allowed economic exclusion zones under the United Nations Law of the Sea. Convention. China has refused to recognize this convention when it comes to matters relating to its own interests and wishes to divide and rule by negotiating bilaterally with each of the rival claimants. The area is rich, not only in marine resources but because it is believed to hold large oil and natural gas deposits.

The four ASEAN claimants, naturally, want their organization to adopt a common position that would allow the issue to be resolved multilaterally and in accordance with international treaty obligations; but China has worked actively to exploit divisions within ASEAN, favouring those countries that support the Chinese position.

The International Crisis Group, an advocacy organization headquartered in Brussels, has released a report analysing the different perspectives in the dispute (Stirring up the South China Sea (II): Regional Responses, Asia Report No, 299, 24 July 2012). The Group concludes that the territorial dispute over the South China Sea has reached an impasse and that the prospects of finding a resolution are diminishing. The likelihood of a major conflict remains low but warns that ‘all the trends are in the wrong direction’.

Vietnam has been cultivating international support for its position vis-à-vis China. On a recent visit to Tokyo, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc received assurances from Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshhiko Noda, that Japan ‘supported Vietnam’s stance on the need to maintain peace, stability and marine freedom and safety in the East Sea.’ Such a carefully-worded statement of course, does not actually imply that Japan is in Vietnam’s camp in the dispute, but diplomatically speaking, it was as good an assurance as Vietnam could expect.

Support from the United States is of course of paramount importance to Hanoi. Despite residual suspicions of the US in some quarters of Vietnam’s Communist Party, the government sees advantage in having the US as an ally, especially if it could lead to a lifting of the US ban on sales of ‘lethal’ weapons which Washington has linked to improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record.

US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta was in Vietnam last month and paid a visit to Cam Ranh Bay, the most senior American official to visit the former US base since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. He was there to discuss military-to-military relations as well as possible maritime cooperation.

Following on his heels, US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton met with Vietnam’s top leadership in early July for talks aimed at boosting trade and especially, US exports to Vietnam. In the past two years and despite ongoing problems in the Vietnamese economy, bilateral trade has grown by 40 per cent. However, the relationship is heavily biased in Vietnam’s favour with annual US exports to that country accounting for some $4.3 billion, while Vietnam’s exports to the United States last year were valued at $17.4 billion.

Vietnam’s leaders pressed Clinton on access to the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership believing that joining such a club would provide both a counterweight to China as well as expanded access to trade with member countries. On this and on another issue which the Vietnamese side pressed, that of access to modern weaponry, Clinton gave the same response.

While agreeing with her hosts that America and Vietnam shared important ‘strategic interests’, America, she said, wanted to see Vietnam improve its human rights record. ‘Democracy and prosperity go hand-in-hand.’ ‘Political reform and economic growth are linked.’

America already sells non-lethal military equipment to Vietnam and, as Secretary Panetta’s visit showed, Hanoi and Washington are moving forward on other areas of military cooperation, but Clinton made it very clear that it expected Vietnam’s human rights record to improve considerably before the US would go further. Marked out for special mention was the continued detention of activists, lawyers and bloggers for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas.

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam has detained three of the country's most prominent bloggers and activists for almost a year without trial for using the Internet to exercise their rights.

In a departure from normal protocol, Clinton requested – and was granted – a meeting with Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Tron. According to reports, the meeting had a two-fold purpose: Clinton was anxious to break down opposition within the party towards closer ties with Washington; secondly it was a further opportunity to reinforce America’s human rights concerns. Tron, apparently, appeared discomforted by Clinton’s presentation although one official is reported to have remarked candidly after the meeting that eventually, Vietnam would have to meet some of Washington’s concerns on the human rights issue.

Perhaps so, but not in the short term; there is every indication that Clinton’s strong push for Vietnam to improve its human rights record fell on deaf ears. Within days of her departure the three activists of concern to Human Rights Watch were sentenced to between four and five-and-a-half years in prison for ‘conducting anti-government propaganda’. In the same week, a group of bloggers were attacked and beaten by unknown assailants suspected of being state security agents.

Reporters without Borders claims that Vietnam has the third largest number of people detailed for political activism after China and Iran.

Christian’s too are being persecuted. Fresh reports in recent days claim that Vietnamese officials in Muong Cha district, Dien Bien Province, destroyed two new church buildings of ethnic minority Hmong Christians this month and threatened to tear down a third.

The Hmong Christian community in Vietnam's Northwest Mountainous Region has grown to almost 400,000 members in the last two decades. Because of their support for the South Vietnamese government during the war, the Hmong Christians remain under heavy government suspicion and are regularly objects of harassment and, sometimes, outright persecution.

Harassment is not confined to Protestants. The large Catholic Church in Vietnam is similarly harassed and its lay members as well as priests beaten. Ominously, despite a special directive from the Prime Minister’s office earlier this year supposedly guaranteeing greater religious tolerance, General Pham Dung of the Ministry of Public Security was recently appointed as the new head of the Government Committee on Religious Affairs. Religious leaders do not see this appointment as a positive step forward; rather, it could explain the new wave of persecution the churches are facing.

For the moment at least, Vietnam has turned a deaf ear to American concerns. But that is to be expected in a country where ‘face’ is highly prized. Whether or not there is ultimately any softening of the Vietnamese position on human rights may take some time to discern.

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