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    Southeast Asia
     Nov 16, 2006
Bush strikes a 'grand bargain' with Vietnam
By Shawn W Crispin

When US President George W Bush arrives in Vietnam on Friday for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit [1], he'll be looking to burnish his foreign-policy credentials after last week's bruising congressional election defeat, which was widely viewed as a referendum on his government's ill-fated invasion of Iraq.

But any pretensions that Bush may make toward policy success in Vietnam should be viewed just as incredulously as his

administration's various other spurious declared victories for democracy in the Middle East.

The former US war adversary and now emerging economic partner, Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, will roll out the red carpet for Bush. With US support, Vietnam is poised in early 2007 to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), an important recognition of the country's successful 20-year transition from a command to a market-based economy.

Although the US Congress on Tuesday rejected a deal to normalize bilateral trade relations, Bush will, much to the delight of his APEC hosts, cast warming US-Vietnamese relations as one of his government's few foreign-policy successes.

Earlier, Bush's government had predicated strengthening economic ties on improvement of the monolithic, repressive communist regime's abysmal rights record. In May 2005, the US and Vietnam reached an agreement whereby Hanoi vowed to ease its restrictions on religious freedoms in exchange for a bilateral trade deal and Washington's support for its bid to WTO membership.

Negotiations on specific cases and issues were stuck until this year, and at least two of the "prisoners of concern" whom Washington firmly pushed for release are still under detention without charge.

Nonetheless, the US State Department on Tuesday removed Vietnam from its list of "countries of particular concern" that severely repress religious freedoms - a sticking point in formally normalizing trade relations and a point of embarrassment for Hanoi.

That concession was granted even though the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan independent federal agency, strongly urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as recently as November 6 to maintain the sanctions because "religious prisoners were still confined, only a tiny fraction of the churches closed since 2001 had been reopened and forced renunciations of faith continued".

Grand bargain
The decision, it appears, was part of a larger behind-the-scenes quid pro quo deal, including significantly Vietnam's agreement to abolish or repeal its "administrative detention decree 31/CP", which harshly allows for detention without trial.

Hanoi first enacted the draconian decree in 1997 to silence dissidents without messy and embarrassing trials that often drew critical international news attention. State Department official Michael Orona on October 30 told an Agence France-Presse reporter that Vietnam had agreed to scrap the measure - though to date Hanoi has not made a formal announcement.

And it was likely no coincidence that US technology firm Intel decided to increase its Vietnam-based investments from US$300 million to $1 billion on the same day last week that a Vietnamese court convicted but only lightly punished and agreed to deport three US citizens on "terrorism" charges. The case had emerged as a sharp sticking point in bilateral relations. Vietnam-born Nguyen Thuong Cuc, who was detained without charge for more than a year, was released early from her 15-month sentence for "humanitarian reasons" related to her declining health.

To be sure, there have been new, hopeful signs of openness in Vietnam. In September, authorities released more than 5,300 prisoners, and in October another 1,000 were released for "good behavior". The Communist Party announced its intention in September to promote more gender equality and advancement of women in the workplace.

And a local newspaper recently reported that the Communist Party was considering a draft decree that would open the way for sex-change procedures, a seemingly dramatic reversal of the party's longtime ban on deemed deviant sexual behavior, including homosexuality.

Bush will no doubt attempt to cast these select developments as proof that his administration's sticks-and-carrots approach is promoting more economic and political openness in Vietnam. But it is altogether unclear whether Vietnam's recent concessions are not mere window-dressing for its APEC showing, and that once the foreign dignitaries return home and important trade deals are sealed that the heavy-handed regime returns in earnest to its repressive old ways, some Vietnamese pro-democracy activists fear.

Daring democracy movement
Vietnam's new thousands-strong pro-democracy movement, known locally as Bloc 8406, has daringly intensified its activities to coincide with US pressure on the government to improve its rights record. In August, the group publicly declared its four-phase proposal for Vietnam's democratization, including demands for the restoration of civil liberties, the establishment of political parties, the drafting of a new constitution and, finally, democratic elections for a new representative National Assembly.

Vietnamese authorities have since cracked down hard on the group's members, through physical abuse, harassment, lengthy interrogations and in at least two cases detention without trial. Still, Bloc 8406 members, who have openly publicized their names and addresses, intend to make their calls for democratic change heard during the APEC summit. Communist authorities have reacted violently to that possibility, erecting "No Foreigners", "No Pictures", and "Restricted Area - No Passing" signs near the homes of known dissidents.

Public-security forces have reportedly jammed mobile-phone reception in several areas of Hanoi to impede communication between dissidents and reporters. Labor activist Le Thi Cong Nhan, a spokeswoman for the unsanctioned Vietnam Progression Party, has been ordered by police not to leave her home, meet with foreigners or have more than two people in her house during APEC, according to pro-democracy activists. Former political prisoner Pham Hong Son has since November 4 been the victim of two mysterious staged traffic accidents, where masked assailants have attempted to knock him off his motorcycle, they say.

Last Thursday, the government forcibly emptied Hanoi's central Mai Xuan Thuong Park of hundreds of protesters, some having made the trip from distant provinces, who had gathered to stage protests against government corruption. Still, Viet Tan, an underground grassroots democracy movement, has said through a widely circulated statement that APEC "is the time [for foreign leaders and media] to engage in a dialogues with the Vietnamese people, not just the dictatorial regime".

For all the democratic and rights-promoting symbolism, those meetings clearly won't happen during Bush's visit. That's because his administration's Vietnam initiative is driven more by commercial and strategic imperatives than a drive to promote democracy. Vietnam is currently Asia's second-fastest-growing economy, and is quickly emerging as the regional destination of choice for Western and Japanese investors aiming to hedge their exposure to China. After decades of economic isolationism, Vietnam presents vast greenfield investment opportunities for US companies, including in the crucial information-technology industry, for which Vietnam is home to more than 600 software-oriented firms.

Bush is also aggressively courting Vietnam to counterbalance China's emerging military influence in the region. In July, senior US military officials broached the possibility of conducting joint military maneuvers with their Vietnamese counterparts, and urged for greater US naval vessel access to the country's ports. Donald Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, in April paid a high-profile visit to Hanoi, leading to still unsubstantiated speculation that Washington was negotiating access to air-terminal and deepwater-port facilities at Cam Ranh Bay to pressure China's naval ambitions.

Growing economic and strategic ties no doubt represent a useful catharsis for the two former war adversaries' painful past. But the grand bargain that Bush has brokered with Vietnam's communist leaders falls well short of his administration's earlier position to exchange economic and strategic privileges only for proven democratic gains. But in his weakened political state, Bush will clearly choose to see democratic progress among signs of repression, so long as he can take home a much-needed foreign-policy victory.

[1] The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation is a group of Pacific Rim countries that meet with the purpose of improving economic and political ties. It has standing committees on a wide range of issues, from communications to fisheries.The heads of government of APEC members meet annually in a summit called APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting rotating in location among APEC's member economies. Its members are: Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

Shawn W Crispin is Asia Times Online's Southeast Asia editor.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing .)

Vietnam puts power before people (Nov 11, '06)

China and Vietnam put business first (Oct 25, '06)

Vietnam opens wide to tourism (Oct 12, '06)

Heed the call of Vietnam's Bloc 8406 (Sep 14, '06)

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