Pragmatic US Vietnam Relationship for Asian Century

ASEAN The Mekong

Below is the transcript of Dr. Satu Limaye’s—director of the East-West Center in Washington—interview with ABC Radio Australia on Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang's visit to Washington, D.C. and the White House.

Vietnam's leader has defended his government's human rights record on a visit to the US, ahead of talks with President Barack Obama.

President Truong Tan Sang is only the second Vietnamese leader invited to the White House, since the normalisation of relations.

Speaking before meeting his US counterpart, President Sang said his government had been making "sustained efforts to promote human rights" as part of Vietnam's reform process.

However, it would seem not many in the US Congress will agree with him.

The US-ASEAN Business Council is hosting a reception to welcome President Sang. Dr Satu Limaye, director of the East-West Center in Washington DC, spoke to Asia Pacific before attending the event.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Dr Satu Limaye, director, East-West Centre, Washington DC

LIMAYE: Both parties have a number of issues on the table. The official statements have indicated a list of issues but I think certainly the Trans-Pacific Partnership which Vietnam is a negotiating party to is high on the agenda. I think all the economic issues go with Vietnamese attempts to join that trade agreement, such as textiles, on the US side in particular a concern the state-owned enterprises reform is on the agenda. Inevitably I think there will be some discussion of the South China Sea. More quietly there will be discussion of bilateral security and maybe strategic relations to put it broadly. And then of course I think human rights will be on the agenda and what's going on within Vietnam, both on the economic and domestic political front.

LAM: Given Vietnam's human rights record, do you think President Truong's visit might prove problematic for President Obama, especially as he tries to convince a doubtful Congress about the Trans-Pacific Partnership that you mentioned, a TTP that has Vietnam in it?

LIMAYE: No I don't think it will pose a major problem to the President. I mean after all the human rights concerns are well expressed in Congress and by the administration. One of the reasons to invite the President is he hasn't been here as I understand it since 2007, almost half a decade since a senior Vietnamese leader has come here. So it's important to have this conversation, an opportunity for people on the Hill and elsewhere to hear the President of Vietnam on these issues.

LAM: Vietnam is I understand holding at least 120 political prisoners and has been in the news recently for cracking down on freedom of expression, especially the jailing of bloggers. And also the targetting of religious leaders not approved by Hanoi. Do you think President Obama has or is likely to raise these issues with President Sang?

LIMAYE: I do, I believe he will, I don't know in what context exactly how he will do that in the planned meeting tomorrow, but I cannot imagine there would not be some coverage of these issues in their bilateral meeting, whether that's a private meeting or in official channels. This is not a hidden issue in the US-Vietnam relationship, and even if you go to a local area of Virginia here where there's a large Vietnamese-American community, there are signs about human rights. And certainly members of Congress and various observers and analysts at leading think tanks and others have spoken candidly about the need for better human rights protections in Vietnam in the context of an overall relationship. This is not the only element of the bilateral relationship, Vietnam is a big country in Southeast Asia, it occupies a critical place in the geo-strategy of an evolving Asia, it's a negotiating partner for a Trans-Pacific Partnership on economic and trade issues. So human rights will clearly be an issue, it will clearly come up in bilateral discussions, but I don't think we would be well advised to hang the relationship on one issue.

LAM: And yet you have commentators pointing out that gestures like state visits should follow, and not proceed reforms and human rights advances. Do you think that Washington's hosting of a Vietnamese leader might be a sign that Obama's shift of diplomatic and strategic focus to Asia is overriding human rights concerns?

LIMAYE: No I don't think so at all. I think that this is part and parcel as you go back to the six key lines of action that Secretary Hillary Clinton outlined in her foreign policy article in November of 2011; protection of human rights and freedoms was a key tenet of her six key lines of US action, and it's been part of our policy from the beginning, it's not going to go away under this administration, it didn't go away under a previous one, it won't under a future one. This will be part of a package. How you calibrate that in each relationship, how you get to improving the human rights conditions of religious freedom conditions is a matter of calibration in each relationship that requires I think very careful management by the people responsible in the respective capitals for the relationship. I do not at all think it undermines it. So this is an ongoing process, it's a calibrated process and I frankly think it's a good opportunity to air and vent these issues as part of the overall relationship and see how we can make progress on human rights issues along with all of the other issues in this important bilateral relationship.

LAM: In strategic terms how does a close relationship with Vietnam enhance President Obama's Asian Century policy?

LIMAYE: Well three or four quick ways; first of course Vietnam is a large country with as I said geo-strategically placed along the Asian land mass, but also with the claims in the South China Sea, a very important waterway and sea lines of communication. Second, it's a big economy and undertaking reforms as indicated by its desire to join TPP. Of course there are difficulties, of course there are challenges, but growth of Vietnam and reform of its economy so that it becomes more integrated with the US and with dynamic Asia Pacific is critical. And thirdly, Vietnam has long been a geo-strategic actor in Asia, and the President in outlining rebalance or pivot policy to the Asia Pacific talks specifically about building new partnerships with countries that we don't have alliances with, those include obviously India, Indonesia and of course Vietnam. So in these three ways I think the developing, obviously a work in progress, US-Vietnam relationship is crucial.

Click here for audio of this interview: Pragmatic US Vietnam relationship for Asian Century