The sight of a Vietnamese prime minister standing next to an American president, and asking for a bigger US role in the South China Sea, is still a startling one – for all the diplomatic contortions and adjustments of recent years.
The appeal by the premier, Nguyen Tan Dung, at this week’s summit with ASEAN leaders in California will have been music to the ears of President Obama.
However, it also underlines concern that the United States is increasingly sacrificing principle for strategic advantage in its dealings with Vietnam and other authoritarian states in Southeast Asia.
The summit ended with a call for a reduction in tensions in the South China Sea – a tame statement toned down by China’s allies in the Southeast Asian bloc.
But the evidence of ever cosier ties between the US and Vietnam will unsettle hard pressed pro-democracy activists who are counting on Washington to apply pressure for political reform.
Members of Congress and human rights groups urged President Obama to stress democracy and human rights during the summit with the ten ASEAN leaders at the Sunnylands Centre in California.
The focus instead appears to have been firmly on economic and strategic cooperation, with minds concentrated by the looming economic and military might of China.
Nine members of Congress, including Chris Smith of New Jersey and Alan Lowenthal of California, singled out the continued repression of dissidents in Vietnam. They urged President Obama to threaten no further expansion of relations without a significant and verifiable improvement in human rights.
They said the president should “raise concerns about a pattern of serious violations of human rights, especially as Vietnam aggressively seeks to expand trade with the United States.”
The House representatives said that a different approach was needed, and they drew attention to the “most troubling” recent arrests of the pro-democracy advocates, Nguyen Van Dai and Nguyen Huu Vinh.
They named a list of prisoners of conscience that should be released and called for the repeal of laws that are used by the Vietnamese government to silence dissent and arrest its critics.
Whatever was said in private between the leaders, however, public statements were confined to the need for economic and strategic cooperation.
Human rights advocates and their allies in Congress will see the California meeting as a missed opportunity.
“He should not only demand the release of all political prisoners but, standing side by side with the Vietnamese prime minister, also call for the country to follow Burma’s example and hold genuine multiparty elections,” said Brad Adams, the Asia Director for Human Rights Watch.
The appearance of the outgoing Vietnamese prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, at the summit surprised some observers.
He may be a largely spent force in Vietnamese politics but he did take the opportunity to burnish his reputation as a leader comfortable with closer ties to the United States.
A statement on the Vietnamese government website made clear, without actually naming China, that he was calling for US pressure on Beijing over its construction of military facilities in the South China Sea.
“Prime Minister Dung suggested the United States has a stronger voice and more practical and more efficient actions requesting termination of all activities changing the status quo,” said the statement.
The White House announced that President Obama would visit Vietnam in May, yet another sign of how rapidly ties are improving.
Advocates for greater democracy and respect for civil rights will see this as another great opportunity to put pressure on the Vietnamese government over it human rights record.
Expectations will be tempered, however, by recent form and by Washington’s growing focus on its strategic contest with China.