Obama faces dilemma on Vietnam visit

President Obama is greeted at the airport on his arrival late on Sunday night. Picture courtesy Reuters

President Obama is greeted at the airport on his arrival late on Sunday night. Picture courtesy Reuters

President Obama begins his three day visit to Vietnam amid a display of Communist party control that underlines the political distance that remains between the two countries despite their anxiety for warmer relations.

Polls had  just closed in National Assembly elections as Air Force One touched down at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport – an election process that has exposed how the party weeds out any candidate that seeks to challenge its monopoly on power.

Rigorous vetting ensured that none of the hundred or so genuinely independent candidates were allowed to stand for the 500 seats in the rubber-stamp assembly.

The authorities have also just put on another display of their ruthlessness and intolerance of criticism – by unleashing police and plainclothes agents to crush sporadic street protests over an environmental disaster that has poisoned waters off the central coast.

An "election" closely supervised by Communist party officials. Photo courtesy Tuoi Tre.

An “election” closely supervised by Communist party officials. Photo courtesy Tuoi Tre.

US officials had been hoping for an easing of political repression in Vietnam so that President Obama could focus on sealing a de facto strategic partnership with Hanoi.

Both sides are committed to closer economic co-operation and they both have an interest in restraining China’s growing belligerence in the South China Sea.

US officials have made clear, however, that they seek to balance Vietnam’s lack of progress on human rights with the urge to cement security and economic ties with an old enemy that now looks to many in Washington like a key strategic asset.

Leverage for political reform

The big test is President Obama’s pending decision on whether to lift the US ban on the sale of lethal military equipment to Vietnam.

Many political activists in Vietnam, backed by some US congressmen and officials, as well as influential voices in the US media, think the embargo should be used as leverage to extract more concessions on human rights.

US officials have always said that a full lifting of the ban is contingent on an improvement in human rights, although the balance now appears to be shifting in favour of strategic interests.

President Obama does intend to meet independent civil society activists during his three days in the country.

Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council told lobbyists that the president would address individual cases of human rights violations and urge legal reforms on Vietnamese leaders.

“That will also give him an opportunity to reaffirm his commitment to human rights and inclusive governance in Vietnam, as we do in countries around the world,” said Mr Rhodes.

“So he’ll have an opportunity to hear the views and concerns of civil society and share his own thoughts in return,” he said.

Harassment, threats and violence

Vietnam pre-empted the president’s visit by releasing one of the country’s longest serving political prisoners, Father Nguyen Van Ly, a few months before the end of his latest jail term.

With some hundred other prisoners of conscience still behind bars, and political activists regularly subjected to harassment, threats and violent attacks, the gesture does not meet even the minimum expectations of human rights campaigners.

The US has repeatedly called for the release of all political prisoners.

President Obama must now decide whether to follow through on that demand, or whether to sacrifice hope of political reform for strategic gain. The great game now, after all, is containing China’s growing power and presence in the western Pacific.