By Scott Flipse and Nguyen Dinh Thang, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Scott Flipse is deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Nguyen Dinh Thang is executive director of Boat People SOS, a Vietnamese-American community organizing association. The views expressed are their own.
Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visits the White House on Thursday, and when he does, President Barack Obama should take the opportunity to deliver a clear message: If Vietnam wants expanded trade and security cooperation, then Hanoi will have to demonstrate concrete and substantial improvements in human rights. Prioritizing these rights may prompt some grumbling, but will be overwhelmingly welcomed by the Vietnamese people, the large majority of whom are pro-American and want more freedom.
There is a recent precedent for this approach. In Burma, the administration prioritized human rights improvements as a condition for improved relations. Indeed, given Burma’s recent openness to reform, Vietnam has now been left with the worst human rights record in the Association of Southeast Asian Nation region.
By setting clear human rights benchmarks for Vietnam in exchange for new trade and security benefits from the administration, the U.S. can achieve similar results in Vietnam. In fact, such an approach worked for Vietnam nearly a decade ago, particularly in the arena of freedom of religion.
In late 2004, the George W. Bush administration designated Vietnam as a "country of particular concern," a U.S. blacklist of countries with the worst religious freedom abuses. Vietnam, seeking U.S. support for its WTO membership, responded with steps to improve conditions for Vietnam's diverse religious communities.
Unfortunately, the Bush administration removed the designation – and with it, the threat of possible sanctions – prematurely in 2006. Hanoi quickly launched a brutal crackdown against religious leaders, journalists, authors, human rights champions, student activists, labor union organizers, and land rights advocates. Since 2007, Hanoi has conducted four waves of arrests against dissidents, its worst crackdown since 1975.
While the Obama administration repeatedly states its disappointment with Vietnam's "backsliding" on human rights, Hanoi continually ignores such messages. And, although the administration says the right things publicly, its actions point to its real interests in trade expansion and security cooperation.
For example, in April a State Department delegation was in Hanoi for a one-day dialogue on human rights. It was attended by low-ranking Vietnamese government officials, with State Department officials denied meetings with prominent dissidents. In contrast, 10 days later a large U.S. delegation led by the acting U.S. Trade Representative spent three days in Vietnam to negotiate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). That group met with the Vietnamese president, a deputy prime minister, several ministers and deputy ministers.
The message to Vietnam’s government is blindingly obvious: The U.S. cares more about trade than human rights. But such an approach has U.S. priorities backwards and undermines the leverage the U.S. has to bring about concrete human rights improvements.
Simply stated, Vietnam wants more from the United States than the U.S. wants from Vietnam. Vietnam wants access to the TPP and other beneficial trade preferences such as the General System of Preferences (GSP). Vietnam also wants the United States to balance China's aggressive stance in the South China Sea and to protect Vietnam's interest in offshore islands. If Washington sends a crystal clear message that expanded relations depend on concrete human rights improvements, then Hanoi can be expected to respond accordingly.
In his meeting this week, President Obama should tell President Truong Tan Sang that Vietnam will get the trade preferences and security assurances it wants only when all prisoners of conscience are released, when internet censorship is ended, when suppression of independent labor and religious organizations are halted, and Vietnam demonstrates a move to a "rule-of-law" system in all areas, not just those advancing its economic interests.
As a goodwill gesture, Hanoi should be asked to release four of the most prominent prisoners of conscience immediately, including Cu Huy Ha Vu, a constitutional scholar serving a seven-year prison term for publicly challenging the government's violations of the Constitution; Nguyen Van Hai (also known as Dieu Cay), who is serving a 12-year sentence for launching the Club of Free Journalists; Ta Phong Tan, a former security official who started a blog to expose government corruption and who is serving a 10-year sentence for "conducting propaganda against the state;" and Le Quoc Quan, a human rights lawyer and former fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, who has been detained without trial since December 2012.
Conditioning the expansion of U.S.-Vietnam relations on human rights improvements will demonstrate to Vietnam's leaders that U.S. interests rest on the combined foundation of human rights, trade, and security cooperation. It will produce concrete results that the administration can rightly claim as a major diplomatic success. And it will be joyously welcomed by the Vietnamese people, who no doubt want greater prosperity, more freedoms, and protections of fundamental human rights.