Human-rights concerns not derailing U.S.-Vietnam trade relations

Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet’s arrival Tuesday in the United States marked the first visit by a Vietnamese head of state since 1975.

President George Bush will meet Triet on June 22 for wide-ranging strategic and economic talks at the White House.
However, administration officials have recently downgraded aspects of the summit due to renewed concerns over Hanoi’s human rights record.

Although Triet’s visit to the U.S., reciprocating Bush’s November 2006 to Hanoi, was planned well ahead of time, Washington did not formally invite Triet until early June. The delay was a calculated rebuke to Hanoi for the arrests and trials since March of seven dissident advocates of multi-party politics. Following Vietnam’s successful entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), the government has been less willing to defer to Western human rights concerns.

Human rights concern.

Washington and the EU joined international human rights groups in sharply criticizing Hanoi this spring:

•Western critics. This month, Bush signaled his displeasure by hosting Vietnamese-American democracy activists at a highly unusual White House meeting. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.), the Democratic co-chairman of the U.S.-Vietnam Caucus in the House of Representatives, resigned his caucus position and threw his support behind a resolution criticizing Vietnam’s human rights practices.

•Hanoi’s response. To ease Western pressure and enable Triet’s visit to go forward, Hanoi has released a handful of dissidents over the past two weeks. They include Le Quo Quan, arrested in March after returning from a brief academic fellowship in the United States, and Nguyen Vu Binh, a journalist. However, these gestures only partly mollified Washington. The Bush administration has refused to give Triet a state dinner, and has shifted the signing ceremony for a key trade agreement from the White House to a lunch hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Bush has said publicly that he will discuss human rights issues with Triet during their meeting.

•Other U.S. protests. Triet and his delegation will probably encounter vocal, if polite, criticism when they are greeted by the congressional leadership. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are both strong human rights advocates. Security for Triet’s visit is also exceptionally tight because of anticipated protests by Vietnamese-American groups in both Washington and Los Angeles, which he will also visit.

Trade-driven relationship.

Washington and Hanoi continue a cautious and incremental expansion of their security relationship, but trade relations are rapidly expanding:

•Expanding ties. With an annualized GDP growth rate of 8.2 percent, Vietnam continues to lead economic expansion in Southeast Asia. U.S.-Vietnam trade has more than quadrupled (to $9.7 billion per annum in goods and services) since a bilateral trade agreement went into effect in 2001.

•Towards an FTA? To facilitate this trend, the two countries will sign a Trade and Investment Agreement (TIFA). It will establish a formal bilateral trade dialogue and provide monitoring mechanisms to measure Vietnam’s compliance with WTO regulations. Moreover, the agreement represents a critical step towards negotiation of a U.S.-Vietnam free trade agreement (FTA). Talks on an FTA are not likely to start in earnest until a new U.S. administration is in place in early 2009, but the TIFA is seen on both sides as affirmation that FTA negotiations will begin shortly.

•Corporate deals. The Triet delegation is also expected to confirm a number of lucrative business deals with U.S. firms. These include joint ventures between Chevron and Vietnam Petrochemical, and between Microsoft and the Vietnamese Bank of Agriculture. The U.S. and Vietnamese Chambers of Commerce will also announce the establishment of formal ties. Lastly, Boeing hopes to conclude negotiations on another substantial aircraft order by Vietnam Airlines, even if a formal announcement does not occur during Triet’s stay.

Lingering war issues.

While Hanoi may be irritated by criticism of its human rights record, it is pleased with recent U.S. measures to address lingering issues arising from the Vietnam War:

•Dioxin-Agent Orange concerns. A $3 million earmark in the 2007 supplemental spending bill signed by the president on May 25 will go towards removing dioxin, a poison in herbicides sprayed during the war (e.g., Agent Orange) from former U.S. bases in southern and central Vietnam (primarily Da Nang and Bien Hoa). Some of the money may also be used for aid to Vietnamese who live on the perimeter of the bases and continue to be affected by dioxin leaching into the soil and water.
Although $3 million is not nearly enough to address all of Hanoi’s dioxin concerns, it represents the first time that the issue has been formally acknowledged in U.S. legislation. Private U.S. charities are also playing a role. On June 19, the Ford Foundation, one of the largest philanthropic groups in the United States, announced a major Agent Orange initiative and the establishment of a U.S.-Vietnam Dialogue on Agent Orange/Dioxin to be housed at the Aspen Institute.

These initiatives come at a time when alleged Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange are pressing to have a class action suit
against U.S. chemical companies that manufactured the dioxin herbicides reinstated by a U.S. Court of Appeals. The case was argued before the court on June 18, but a decision is not expected for three to six months.

•Vang Pao case. Another U.S. action this month was viewed favorably by Hanoi for addressing unfinished business from the war. On June 4, the FBI arrested former Laotian Gen. Vang Pao, now a U.S. citizen, for allegedly plotting the violent overthrow of the Lao government. He was charged with violation of the Neutrality Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from planning or participating in armed revolution against a foreign government. Vang Pao was the Hmong general who led U.S.-backed mercenary forces against the communist Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War.

Since the fall of Saigon in 1975, Hanoi has been concerned that hard-line Vietnamese-American groups might launch similar plots in Vietnam, and has regularly pressed Washington for assurances that it would prosecute Vietnamese-Americans under the Neutrality Act. Thus far, U.S. officials have declined to make any formal promises, but the Vietnamese government views Vang Pao’s arrest as an indication that potential Vietnamese-American insurgents would receive similar treatment.


Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com .