HANOI— On Thursday, President Truong Tan Sang will become the second Vietnamese head of state to visit the White House since the two countries normalized relations nearly 20 years ago. The talks are expected to cover the two countries’ increasing trade, Hanoi’s relations with China and U.S. concerns over Vietnam’s human rights record.
The United States is Vietnam’s second largest trading partner after China and Vietnam's proposed participation in the U.S.-led free-trade organization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP], is likely to be high on the agenda.
Vietnam's youthful population and rising economic growth make it an attractive market for many U.S. firms. Last week, McDonalds, the U.S.-based fast food giant, became the latest global food brand to announce it would open a franchise in the country.
At a press conference in Hanoi last week, foreign ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said bilateral relations have grown since the two countries normalized relations in July of 1995.
He said the United States and Vietnam have agreed to establish a friendly, constructive partnership on the basis of equality, mutual respect, and benefits.
But there are continuing differences over U.S. objections to Vietnam’s worsening record on human rights. So far this year, the international rights group Human Rights Watch says Vietnam has handed down more jail sentences to religious leaders, dissidents and bloggers than the whole of 2012.
This month's trial of dissident lawyer Le Quoc Quan was postponed indefinitely. Jailed blogger Dieu Cay was described as “very weak” as he conducts a hunger strike against prison conditions.
Vietnamese activist Trinh Kim Tien said she hopes that human rights will be a prominent part of the U.S.-Vietnam talks. She said Obama has highlighted Dieu Cay's case before and should do something now to help his family before it’s too late.
With such stories drawing attention abroad, analysts are watching to see what impact they will have in the discussions with U.S. officials. Defense analyst Professor Carl Thayer points to the U.S. policy of rebalancing its influence toward the Asia-Pacific.
“I’m guessing, that if America only plays the human rights card they’re shooting themselves in the foot in trying to advance strategic relationship with Vietnam," Thayer said. "The larger game of rebalancing is access, shaping, security outlets and improving maritime security, and how far is Vietnam willing to go with China."
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 Sang’s trip to Beijing last month, the two communist countries agreed to set up an emergency hotline to help resolve territorial disputes that have occasionally strained their relations. But not everyone agrees that things are going well between them.
Retired diplomat and Vietnam expert David Brown believes Vietnam’s relationship with China has stalled since talks in October 2011, partly over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
"My reading on that was that a year and a half ago the Chinese agreed at least to talk about the Paracels [islands], not about giving them back, but at least about allowing the Vietnamese certain kinds of access there and in the seas around them, and the Vietnamese side said 'okay, we’ll talk about that.' But it seems those discussions have gone nowhere at all," he said.
Brown said those tensions over the Paracels are partly why the United States will be in a strong position during the talks, since Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia see Washington as a counterbalance to China’s maritime ambitions.
Also with other U.S. allies in the region like the Philippines and Singapore, Brown points out that Washington is not interested in seeking a stronger military presence in Vietnam to offset China. This is why, he said, the United States could have more leverage on discussions on human rights.