U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Vietnam's Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh in Hanoi, Sept. 11, 2023.

Vietnam, US Upgrade Partnership; Activists Critique Silence on Human Rights

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM — Hanoi and Washington have announced an upgrade in bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership, the top designation in Vietnam’s diplomatic hierarchy. A U.S. strategy of noninterference into Vietnam’s domestic politics has been crucial to Hanoi agreeing to the deal, experts say, but activists and rights groups are frustrated by the lack of focus on human rights as the crackdown on civil society worsens in the Southeast Asian country.

U.S. President Joe Biden arrived in Hanoi on Sunday to meet with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. That afternoon, Trong and Biden announced they had agreed to a comprehensive strategic partnership for peace, cooperation, and sustainable development. In a lengthy joint statement, a paragraph was dedicated to the “promotion and protection of human rights.”

Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch Phil Robertson said human rights were treated as an “afterthought” during the visit.

“The White House statement afterwards was pathetic, flagging an ongoing U.S. – Vietnam human rights ‘dialogue’ that conveniently sequesters human rights issues to a symbolic, once a year meeting with mid-level officials who talk but don’t get anything concrete done,” Robertson wrote over email.

Singer and activist Do Nguyen Mai Khoi fled Vietnam for the United States in 2019 after being threatened with arrest. She is disappointed with Washington’s standpoint as she has seen authorities jail all of the country’s activists “who didn’t want to stay quiet or live in hiding” and the government has begun arresting environmentalists and NGO leaders, she told VOA.

There are currently 191 activists in prison in Vietnam, according to the U.S.-based human rights group The 88 Project.

“Human rights and activism in Vietnam has gotten worse and worse since I left,” Mai Khoi wrote over the messaging app Signal. “[The U.S.] thinks they already have done enough for human rights by announcing some statements every time a famous activist gets arrested or giving a prize to a famous political prisoner. I think the U.S. could do better than that.”

Non-interference

Persuading Hanoi that the United States will steer clear of domestic politics has been a yearslong project.

In the past, Vietnamese leaders have been wary that an upgraded partnership with the U.S. would come with the agenda of shifting the country’s communist political system, said Le Hong Hiep, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. By putting democratic values to the side, he said, Washington was able to persuade Hanoi to upgrade ties.

“There’s a kind of commitment on the U.S. side not to interfere in Vietnam’s politics,” Hiep said. “In recent years they also have become less critical of Vietnam’s human rights record and that also helped to ease the concern of Vietnam’s leadership.”

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