US officials to discuss continued repression

Police beat and arrested demonstrators protesting over the environmental disaster off the central coast.

Police beat and arrested demonstrators protesting over the environmental disaster off the central coast.

The beating and arrest of peaceful demonstrators in broad daylight at the weekend; the recent sentencing of independent bloggers to long prison terms; the continued harassment and detention of civil society activists.

Vietnam’s contention that it is improving its human rights record and respecting the democratic freedoms of its people is not getting any easier to sustain.

Human rights will be a key item on the agenda as Vietnamese officials sit down with two leading state department diplomats, currently in Hanoi to prepare the ground for President Obama’s visit later this month.

The Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, Daniel Russel, and the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Tom Malinowski, have both made clear that an improvement in human rights remains the key to warmer ties between the two countries.

Assistant Secretary for East Asia, Daniel Russel, says that human rights remain high on the agenda.

Assistant Secretary for East Asia, Daniel Russel, says that human rights remain high on the agenda.

President Obama is considering lifting a long standing embargo on the sale of lethal military equipment to Vietnam, a move that would signal a big leap forward in relations.

But despite pressure from the Pentagon for a lifting of the ban, opposition continues in other parts of the US administration.

“One of the important factors that would make a lift of the ban possible would be to continue forward momentum in meeting universal human rights standards and progress in important legal reform,” said Mr Russel on his arrival in Vietnam.

He said that lifting the embargo was still “under periodic review” despite a recent statement from the Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, that a decision had already been made to go ahead.

Tom Malinowski made no statement on his arrival but has repeatedly called on the authorities to release all political prisoners.

In his previous meetings with civil society activists, he has been told that the political climate in Vietnam is, if anything, getting more repressive.

The outcome of a leadership reshuffle at the Communist party congress in January showed that there is little appetite for political reform despite the diplomatic benefits it would bring.

Vietnam has repeatedly called on the United States to lift the arms embargo, parts of which were relaxed in 2014 to allow sales of maritime equipment.

It wants to send a signal to China that it is determined to stand up to Beijing’s ever more assertive presence in the South China Sea, even if that means drawing closer to the old enemy in Washington.

But Vietnam appears unwilling to pay a significant political price.

Many observers expect only token concessions to the United States on human rights and the continued persecution of government critics.

They see no indications that Vietnam is prepared to take a significant step towards political pluralism, in the way that Myanmar did, in order to secure a firmer strategic relationship with the United States.