US-Vietnam relations: What is reality of diplomatic “pressures”?

US Vice President Kamala Harris

US Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to pay an official visit to Vietnam on August 24, 2021, according to US media

The pressure on the US government before each visit from the White House leadership to Vietnam has been customary with many reasons behind it, but at this time, the issues need to be posed realistically and how it makes sense with sequence priority.

These are just a few of the comments on individual views on US-Vietnam relations from four observers from Vietnam and abroad about two weeks before the expected official visit to Hanoi by US Vice President Kamala Harris.

Recently, according to US media, on August 4,  Republican Senator John Cornyn from Texas sent a letter to the US Secretary of State and Defense Secretary, asking the US government to promote Vietnam on issues of human rights and freedom and democracy on the occasion of Ms. Harris’s visit to Vietnam.

Specifically, Mr. Cornyn asked the US Secretary of State to designate Vietnam as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act 1998 because based on the annual report of the Department of State, Vietnam severely suppresses religious freedom, and he also called for sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Law against perpetrators of serious human rights abuses.

The letter from the Republican senator reads:

Vietnam demonstrates strategic value in the Indo-Pacific region, and remains a welcome partner in terms of security cooperation. However, the Vietnamese government continues to demonstrate serious actions concerns about human rights, religious freedom, etc.

Vietnam’s Law on Beliefs and Religions is abused through its interpretation of ambiguous provisions that allow restrictions to be imposed on the basis of national security. This abuse includes tracking, interrogation, arbitrary detention, and discrimination against certain individuals, at least in part, because of their beliefs or religious groups.”

An issue you’ve heard over and over?

On August 10, 2021, from San Jose, California, USA, Doctor, lawyer Nguyen Huu Liem, former president of the Vietnam-American Bar Association of Northern California, commented on the above move of the US Senator.

Senator John Cornyn’s letter is nothing new or strange. Every time there is a visit by the leaders of the two countries, Vietnam and the United States, there are letters asking to raise human rights issues. It’s like listening to literature in the communal house. Things raised such as freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech are welcomed by everyone.

The problem is that it won’t actually do anything – it’s just a comforting balm for domestic political needs in the United States targeting the Vietnamese community. Of course, Vice President Kamala Harris will also raise this issue politely, the Vietnamese side will answer as it has been for decades, that in Vietnam, there is no human rights violation while the rights to freedom of the press, religion or speech are respected.”

From Saigon on Monday, jurist and independent journalist Tran Dinh Thu, who used to work at Thanh Nien newspaper, commented:

Vietnam has many human rights problems, not only in freedom of speech, press, and religion, but also in other areas such as freedom of association and demonstration. For a long time, related to the specifics of political institutions, to the level of development of a country, it is necessary to have long-term and persistent support from the international community, not just within the framework of a visit of the Vice President or the President of the United States.

Currently, Vietnam is in a state of very stressful epidemic and economic stagnation. These are the two issues that overwhelm the concerns of the entire population, the other issues become secondary. I learned that this visit of Mrs. Harris promises a helping hand to Vietnam to overcome the pandemic. So in order not to dilute the main topic, in my opinion, human rights should not be on the agenda.”

On the same day, also from Saigon, lawyer Le Cong Dinh, former vice chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association, giving his point of view:

I think that the US State Department will certainly raise the issue of human rights during Vice President Kamala Harris’s upcoming visit, because it has always been a priority issue in the foreign policy of the US administration under any president. However, in the context of the Covid pandemic raging in Vietnam, I don’t think the Vietnamese government will respond effectively.”

From Hanoi, Doctor of Science Nguyen Quang A, former director of the Institute for Policy Review (IDS) (dissolved itself) stated his views:

I see that the US Vice President’s upcoming visit to Vietnam at the end of August is a good sign for US-Vietnam relations because the top priorities of the US and Vietnam are the same.

The US administrations have all said to uphold human rights and push the Vietnamese government to improve human rights record, but each has its own priorities, and human rights often have a higher priority in the Democratic Party governments, but their overall top priorities are still: first, security (dealing with China), the second is COVID-19, the third is trade and investment, then there’s human rights and everything else.

In other words, human rights are in fourth or sixth place, depending on each government and cabinet. So the majority of US congressmen in localities with a large Vietnamese-American electorate often frequent speak up for human rights (for example, send a letter to the Vice President who is going to visit Vietnam or to the US Secretary of State,…) These, in my opinion, are welcome efforts!

However, the Vietnamese government knows that human rights issues are only ranked sixth, for example, so they do not attach importance to and even take advantage of the COVID-19 epidemic to intensify the suppression of human rights activists as can be seen very clearly for almost last 2 years. The Biden Harris administration, in my opinion, should put human rights on the fourth row instead of the sixth and seventh like in the Donald Trump administration and that is an urgent requirement and I also voice the same call and really I think it would be nice to be second in line, but maybe it should be more realistic.”

Requesting “return of property” is unrealistic?

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reviews the honor guard of the Vietnam People’s Army with Vietnam’s Defense Minister Phan Van Giang in Hanoi on July 29, 2021.

There is also an opinion that this is an opportunity for the US side to ask Vietnam to return or compensate for properties such as houses, land and money to Vietnamese people who previously worked for the Republic of Vietnam – a regime that used to be an ally of the United States – pays to them or through their families and relatives any property that has been confiscated or possessed by the government in Vietnam after April 30, 1975, or expropriation to their detriment.

Observers on Monday also made comments to the BBC on the feasibility and practicality of this issue:

Mr. Nguyen Huu Liem said: “The issue of returning property to the people of the South who was deprived of it is like the similar claims of Cubans in Florida who have cried out for the past 50 years. This is a matter of historical justice – but just like black people in the US asking for reparation for slavery. With the current Communist regime in Vietnam, this demand is unthinkable. Despite the compensation policy, there will be many problems subject.

First, the statute of limitations – whatever legislation. Second, the proof-of-concept of a chain of transferees spanning more than four decades. Third, the land assets have now changed shape, the architecture is no longer recognizable. Even a new political system that understands and agrees in principle, I don’t think anyone can open this ‘can full of bulls’ because it’s too complicated in terms of implementation.”

Mr. Tran Dinh Thu said: “This issue is similar to the human rights issue. It is also a long-term problem that cannot be solved in a day or two. My family is also a former government employee of the Republic of Vietnam before 1975, so I deeply sympathize with those who lost their property like that, but should also put the matter in a reasonable situation. Confused people shouldn’t raise other problems.”

Mr. Nguyen Quang A said: “In short, I think at this point, it is not possible to put it as someone suggested and the US side probably won’t bring up this property issue.”

Mr. Le Cong Dinh said: “As far as I know, the issue of return and compensation for this property has been raised for a long time, but there has never been any result. Therefore, I do not believe that Ms. Harris’s trip has any effect. Moreover, this is an internal national law issue, so I am afraid that the US side will not raise it in the relationship between the two countries.”

What to expect, how about the visit?

Observers on this occasion also made further comments and shared their expectations about the upcoming visit to Vietnam by US Vice President Kamala Harris.

Mr. Nguyen Huu Liem said: “Vice President Harris’s visit is a diplomatic trip that emphasizes security in order to create a counterbalance with Vietnam with China. That’s the priority. All the problems such as human rights or religion mentioned above in my opinion are just the tip of the tongue.

However, I hope that Vietnam should ask the United States to officially recognize Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracels) and the Truong Sa (Spratlys) in the South China Sea. And if you want a breakthrough, I suggest that Vice President Harris visit two cemeteries of Bien Hoa of ARVN soldiers and Truong Son of the North. In Truong Son, if PTT Harris on behalf of the people and government of the US publicly apologizes to the Vietnamese people – issue an official apology for the mistakes of the Americans in Vietnam, to both sides, South and North, then that will be the highlight, the important turning point.”

Tran Dinh Thu said: “Not only me, but according to the results of a recent poll by an international organization, about 80% of Vietnamese people want Vietnam to be closer to the US. Three years ago, during President Trump’s time in office, when there was no indication that Vietnam would be friendly with the US, I published information on my personal Facebook that the government Mr. Trong is driving Vietnam closer to the US than its predecessors. By now, it is clear that Vietnam is getting closer and closer to the US and further away from China. I hope through this visit of Harris, the United States and Vietnam will elevate the comprehensive partnership between the two countries to another level.”

Mr. Le Cong Dinh said: “The priority human rights issue for a trip like this can only be the release of a few prisoners of conscience. In this regard, the Vietnamese government recently announced an amnesty policy on the occasion of the national day holiday and because of the Covid epidemic, including special amnesty cases due to foreign request for political prisoner Tran Huynh Duy Thuc, for example, is suitable for both sides’ ability to resolve.”

Mr. Nguyen Quang A stated his opinion: “I hope the US government raises the issue of human rights and democracy as mentioned in the BBC response above. That is the core issue that Vietnam needs to improve and the only way for the country’s development and also for the benefit of the Communist Party of Vietnam itself if they really want to build a government of the people, by the people and for the people; if they really want the people to be rich, the country strong, and a public society with democracy and civilization!”

What to do to balance more cooperation, dialogue?

Vietnam’s democracy and human rights have not been placed high in the priority of US-Vietnam dialogue and cooperation during President Donald Trump’s tenure, an observer told the BBC.

Observers also expressed interest in the fact that the US-Vietnam relations in dialogue and cooperation need to become more and more balanced between addressing and handling issues.

From Saigon, Mr. Tran Dinh Thu said: “I think in the long-term, the US and the international community should support and promote Vietnam in institutional and social reform, improving democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, to make cooperation more quality, more effective, and for progress in general.”

From Hanoi, Mr. Nguyen Quang A stated: “If the US government cleverly persuades the Vietnamese government to amend the law towards democratization and respect for human rights, that is the best way to harmonize the law so the priorities of the two sides closer for each other.

Although it is the best way, in my opinion it is difficult due to the dictatorship of the Communist Party of Vietnam, so it is necessary to strengthen cooperation in all areas where it is possible to cooperate with Vietnam to improve human rights and democracy in Vietnam.

From California, USA, Mr. Nguyen Huu Liem said: “In my opinion, Vietnam is standing at a modest evolutionary ladder in all aspects, from people to institutions.

This people and nation need to go close to the United States to be elevated further according to the common needs of the times. Despite many shortcomings, the United States is still like a bright torch and Vietnam, despite its many efforts, is still a dark corner of the human community.

With close cooperation, trade and relationship, the light will open a hidden corner of the history of the Vietnamese people,” the lawyer, who is also a scholar of philosophy, told the BBC from his own point of view.

According to the US media, Vice President of the United States, Ms. Kamala Harris will come to Hanoi for an official visit to Vietnam with the expected time on August 24, 2021, after visiting Singapore.

Officials and functional agencies of Vietnam and the United States are coordinating to prepare for this visit of the US Vice President on the basis that the relationship between the two countries “is developing well, substantively, contributing to peace and stability, cooperation and development in the region and around the world,” according to the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry in a recent comment on the upcoming visit of the vice president to Hanoi. (Translated)


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