Cameron stresses trade not rights in Hanoi

Shared interests - Cameron is greetd by Nguyen Tan Dung

Shared interests – Cameron is greeted by Nguyen Tan Dung. Picture courtesy Daily Telegraph

The British prime minister, David Cameron, is reported to have urged Vietnamese leaders to embrace political change during his two day visit to the country ending on Thursday.

But the focus of his talks with the country’s three most senior leaders was heavily focused on trade and investment.

Human rights activists and other government critics in Vietnam believe the Communist Party leadership is acutely sensitive to foreign pressure.

They would like Britain and other democratic countries to do more to support their cause in the face of government harassment, violence and the constant threat of arrest.

British newspapers quoted officials as saying that Mr Cameron told his counterparts in Hanoi that economic reforms must be accompanied by some political change.

He is reported to have asked how the leadership is responding to the use of social media by activists and nascent civil society groups.
Britain has made clear that it has “significant concerns” about the human rights situation – including censorship and the detention of bloggers and religious figures.

But Mr Cameron’s public statements were heavily concentrated on trade.

Many activists in Vietnam are disappointed at the level of support and encouragement they get from Britain, which played a leading role in securing international sanctions against Myanmar over its human rights record and suppression of democracy.

Cameron is received at Communist Party hq. Picture courtesy Daily TelegraphOne campaigner said the British embassy in Hanoi made efforts to assist some officially sanctioned ngos and media organisations, which operate under the close supervision of the Communist Party.

He said British officials were not receptive, unlike some other European countries and the United States, to approaches from many independent groups and activists who are subject to the harshest repression.

Mr Cameron said there were enormous opportunities for British companies in the still rapidly growing Vietnamese economy.
“Our trade with Vietnam accounts for just 0.5 percent of the UK’s total global trade and I think that indicates the enormous opportunity that there is,” he said at a news conference in Hanoi.

Britain is to provide some $800 million in credit finance for Vietnam’s infrastructure development, which Cameron said would also provide opportunities for UK firms.

Britain is the third-biggest European Union investor in Vietnam at $2.7 billion.

The Communist party apparatchiks in Hanoi  are likely to have been pleased with the visit and the lack of any public criticism of their human rights record.

Vietnam is eagerly seeking strong trade and strategic ties with Europe, the United States and other potential partners.

It has set its sights on a free trade agreement with the EU as well as the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) with Washington.

The Vietnamese government feels it needs the trade deals to sustain its export led growth.

It is also looking for “strategic partners” around the globe to try to balance the growing pressure from China in the South China Sea.

The prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, said both he and Mr Cameron shared deep concern over recent developments that threatened security and freedom of navigation.

He mentioned “large scale reclamation activities” – a clear reference to China’s current development of what appear to be military bases on what were recently partially submerged reefs many hundreds of miles from the Chinese coast.

The recent visit by the party General-Secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, to Washington signalled Vietnam’s urgent efforts to seek friends to balance Beijing’s growing assertiveness.

But Vietnam wants no formal allies and is nervous of too close an embrace from the United States.

Middle ranking powers such as Britain and its European partners are a key part of Hanoi’s strategy to diversify its international relations.

Britain, for its part, is urgently seeking new trade partners in markets far from its own troubled backyard in Europe.

It looks like a match made in heaven.

Closer ties with western democracies may discourage Vietnamese leaders from too brutal a response to growing domestic dissent.
But they appear to have little concern about the intentions of Britain, which helped launch international campaigns for democracy against such countries as Myanmar, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

The Communist Party of Vietnam is achieving increasing diplomatic respectability as the country’s economic and strategic importance grows.

The extra legitimacy that bestows comes without paying too high a price – in the form of concessions to its beleaguered critics at home.