Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang has been invited to Washington to meet U.S. President Barack Obama on July 25 - the first visit by a Vietnamese head-of-state since 2007. The news comes as the trial of a dissident lawyer highlighted human rights issues in the communist country.
Although Vietnam has been pressing the United States for this visit for more than a year, the decision appears to have been made at the last minute, said defense analyst and professor Carl Thayer from the University of New South Wales in Australia.
“John Kerry was supposed to go in July but Syria overtook and the Vietnamese were saying we haven’t heard back from the Americans, nothing’s happening on that front, all of a sudden something has happened, I’m just reading the tea leaves here, I think it’s part of [President] Sang’s visit to China and the very positive atmosphere that’s created,” he explained.
Vietnamese diplomacy maintains a careful balancing act between the United States and China, particularly regarding China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
During President Sang’s visit to Beijing last month the two communist countries agreed to set up an emergency hotline to help quickly resolve territorial disputes that have occasionally strained relations between them.
The United States is Vietnam’s second largest trading partner after China, and the two countries have boosted military-to-military talks in recent years. But there are continuing differences over U.S. objections to Vietnam’s record on human rights.
Earlier this week, Vietnamese authorities indefinitely postponed the trial of dissident lawyer Le Quoc Quan. The outspoken blogger is one of Vietnam’s most active human rights advocates. Thayer said the trial’s postponement and Sang’s upcoming visit could be connected.
“It would seem postponing the trial at the moment with Sang’s visit could be related, I’m guessing it is," said Thayer. "Then the Vietnamese have the opportunity afterwards to decide what action to take.”
Quan, 41, wrote a blog and took part in several anti-China marches in the capital. He was often quoted in foreign media on human rights issues.
In 2006 he spent five months in Washington researching civil society under a National Endowment for Democracy fellowship. He was arrested four days after returning to Vietnam and released several months later.
In the run-up to his arrest in December, he complained about increasing police harassment of him and his family.
He is accused of tax evasion, a charge which carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail. Human Rights Watch described the charge as “spurious.”
Vigil for Le Quoc Quan, July 7, 2013
His brother Le Dinh Quan was arrested in October last year on the same charges.
At a candlelit vigil on Sunday in the capital, hundreds of people gathered to show their support for the lawyer. Among them was his mother Nguyen Thi Tram.
She said she has not been allowed to visit or speak to her two sons since they were detained.
Trade and the South China Sea dispute are expected to top the agenda in Washington, but neither side can avoid the thorny issue of human rights.