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Vietnam President Arrives for Visit to Washington

Vietnam's President Nguyen Minh Triet before addressing the Asia Society in New York, June 20, 2007.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP/Getty Images
Vietnam's President Nguyen Minh Triet before addressing the Asia Society in New York, June 20, 2007.

Vietnam's president, who is set to arrive in Washington on Thursday as part of a weeklong visit to the U.S., may face an uncomfortable reception with lawmakers who are as keen to discuss claims of widespread human rights abuses in his country as they are its economic successes.

Nguyen Minh Triet's trip is the first for a president of the communist-led country to the United States since the Vietnam War and he will bring with him a delegation of more than 100 Vietnamese businessmen.

Strengthening economic ties between the two former enemies will be the theme of Triet's visit. In the 12 years since normalizing relations, the U.S. has become one of Vietnam's largest trading partners, with two-way trade now worth more than 9 billion dollars a year.

U.S. investment in Vietnam, however, has lagged behind that of other countries. Some American investors rushed here in the 1990s, but got burned.

On the eve of his trip, President Triet told state-run television that he wants American investors to know the Vietnamese government has done its best to improve conditions for foreign investors and that the environment for them now is "very open" and "very advantageous."

Vietnam is also keen to see the U.S. relax restrictions on Vietnamese exports to the U.S.

"The economic structure of the U.S. and Vietnam are complementing each other," economist Le Dang Doanh said. "I think [the] Vietnamese need American banking, technology, software, Boeing aircraft and Vietnam could [send] garment, foot-ware, furniture and other items to the U.S."

Vietnam, which has one of Asia's fastest-growing economies, achieved its goal of membership in the World Trade Organization in January; U.S. officials expressed hope at the time that the country had begun making progress toward turning around a dismal rights record.

Instead, Vietnam last year launched a crackdown on dissent in recent months, sentencing several prominent dissidents to jail. The crackdown drew condemnation from Washington and other capitals.

For a time it seemed as if Triet's visit might be postponed over the controversy. Sophie Richardson, who is assistant Asia director for Human Rights Watch, wishes it had been.

"It's a real opportunity missed," she said. "I would have rather seen the administration take a position that the dozens arrested in the last six months be released ahead of the visit."

Instead of dozens, Vietnam released just two in the run-up to Triet's visit, including a prominent cyber dissident who'd been jailed for several years, accused of spreading anti-government propaganda over the Internet.

"I think the bottom line will be neither side wants human rights to become a focal point of their relationship. Much broader strategic gains as well as economic [and] commercial interests are at stake," said Carl Thayer, who is a longtime Vietnam watcher at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

He said human rights may not top the agenda when Triet and President Bush meet on Friday, but will continue to be an issue.

"No doubt the two would like to shift it to the level of off-level dialogue, but clearly it's not going to go away," Thayer said. "Vietnam has to weigh the collateral damage that could flow from non-cooperation to start to move to change broad laws that actually make a criminal of someone who propagandizes against the state."

Some U.S. lawmakers, however, said they will bring the issue up when they meet Triet.

"I'll let him know that if we're going to bolster our friendship with Vietnam, as he wishes, Vietnam must embrace political pluralism in all of its forms," said Rep. Ed Royce, a Republican from California who plans to attend the Thursday meeting hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "Silencing dissidents and suppressing religious freedoms are not the ways toward a close partnership."

Pressure by lawmakers and by Bush, he said, could result in progress in Vietnam, a country that "needs the U.S. for economic development; it needs the U.S. to integrate into the international community," he said. "The U.S. is in a great position to exert pressure for human rights and democracy in Vietnam."

Another thorny issue: lingering effects of the defoliant Agent Orange, sprayed in large quantities in the jungles of Vietnam by U.S. troops during the war. Vietnam says millions of people have suffered health problems as a result. The U.S. government says more study is needed, though both sides agreed in November to work together to address the issue.

Last month, President Bush signed a bill that provides $3 million to study health and environmental issues associated with Agent Orange.

With additional reporting from The Associated Press

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.