A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during an anti-China protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang
Vietnamese activists stage a rare anti-China protest in Vietnam in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

HANOI and WASHINGTON – When US Vice President Kamala Harris met with Vietnamese civil society leaders on Thursday morning in Hanoi, she became the highest-ranking White House official to do so since former president Barack Obama visited in the country in 2016.

Nguyen Quang A, a retired banker and prominent dissident activist, remembers that occasion well, although he himself was not in attendance despite receiving an invitation.

“That morning, I left home at 7 am to go to see the president, but when I got out of my house, the police pushed me into a car and drove the car to Hung Yen city, 60 kilometers from Hanoi,” said Quang A, himself a former member of the ruling Communist Party.

“They drove me around until President Obama’s delegation had left for the airport, then they drove me home again.”

Quang A was among several of Obama’s invitees to be detained that morning, along with the human rights lawyer Ha Huy Son, land rights activist Mai Phuong Thao and journalist Pham Doan Trang, who was imprisoned last year on anti-state charges.

Although Harris’ guest list on Thursday did not invite the same scrutiny from the authorities, Harris reiterated the Biden administration’s support for human rights at a press conference before boarding Air Force Two for Hawaii.

“We will always be true to our values and we will not shy away from speaking out even when those conversations may be difficult to have and perhaps difficult to hear,” said the vice president.

In a meeting on Thursday with Vietnamese “change makers” at the US Chief of Mission’s residence, Harris said the world is entering a “new era” of “interconnection and interdependence of people” that will “be based on a number of issues, including the issue of human rights, the issue of equality, the issue of fairness.”

“A society is at its strongest when everyone is able to participate,” Harris said. “A society is weaker when anyone is left out of the opportunity to participate.”

US Vice President Kamala Harris looks on during her meeting with Vietnam’s Vice President Vo Thi Anh Xuan (off frame) in the Gold Room of the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, August 25, 2021, with a statue of Ho Chi Minh in the background. Photo: AFP / Evelyn Hockstein

But while the White House’s human rights rhetoric toward Vietnam has been amplified since former president Donald Trump left office in January, analysts in both countries told Asia Times that they expect other US interests to continue to take priority in Washington’s budding relationship with Hanoi.

“I hope that the vice president will raise the issue of human rights more strongly with the Vietnamese government, but I must also emphasize human rights is not the top priority of the Biden administration with Vietnam at this time,” said Quang A shortly before Harris arrived in Hanoi.

Vietnam, a single-party communist state, has some of the world’s broadest laws restricting free expression.

Vaguely worded articles in the penal code against “propagating against the state” and “abusing democratic freedoms” are regularly used to imprison dissidents, with Human Rights Watch estimating that more than 130 political prisoners are currently incarcerated in the Vietnamese prison system.

In a letter addressed to Harris prior to her departure from Washington signed by representatives from 60 Vietnamese American organizations, activists in the US called for the vice president to advocate for the release of all political prisoners in light of Vietnam’s worst-yet outbreak of Covid-19.

“This is the opportunity for the United States to stand with the people of Vietnam, defend human rights, and demand the Vietnamese government upholds the fundamental freedom and rights of its citizens, especially during the pandemic,” read the letter.

On the day Harris met with Vietnamese leaders to raise human rights concerns,  the government symbolically jailed a state critic to 10 years in prison for “subversion.”

While the US State Department has long chided Vietnam for its authoritarian approach to dissent, official policy since the normalization of ties in 1995 has generally focused on improving relations.

The two governments declared themselves “comprehensive partners” in 2013, paving the way for Obama to invite Vietnam to join the Transpacific Partnership that was later abandoned by Trump.

US President Donald Trump holds a Vietnamese flag as Vietnam’s then-Prime Minister, now-President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, waves a US flag upon their arrival for a meeting at the Government Office in Hanoi on February 27, 2019, Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

Of particular importance to both Washington and Hanoi are overlapping strategic interests in the South China Sea, where both countries share a common fear of Beijing’s territorial ambitions. During his 2016 visit to Hanoi, Obama announced the end to an embargo on lethal weapons to Vietnam, paving the way for future arms sales.

Human rights, said Quang A, are of secondary importance to the US

“Maritime security will be the first priority, following by trade and economic, then fighting Covid, cooperation in climate change and human rights is the fifth one,” he added.

Quang A noted, however, that he was hopeful that a move away from former president Donald Trump’s “America First” policy may make human rights somewhat more prominent in the bilateral relationship.

During his two presidential trips to Vietnam, Trump, unlike his predecessor, refrained from publicly calling for increased respect for human rights from his hosts. Quang A said he understood the issue to be of particularly minimal importance to the White House at the time.

Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and specialist on Vietnamese defense issues, said shortly before Harris’ arrival that the vice president will be obliged to raise human rights owing to Biden’s insistence on making “American values” a key part of his administration’s foreign policy.

“No matter the outcome, Vice President Harris’ visit to Vietnam will ensure that human rights issues feature more prominently in bilateral relations than during the Trump administration,” said Thayer, adding that the issue had the potential to politically restrain elevating the relationship.

Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asian security expert at the National War College in Washington, said that while he suspected that the Biden administration will place a greater emphasis on human rights than its predecessor, Trump had left the bar low.

He said before Harris’ visit that meeting with civil society members and dissidents would be a “very positive step” but that “I am not seeing any indication that Hanoi is planning to quietly release any dissidents as a gesture to Washington.”

Such a gesture would not have been unprecedented. in October 2018, Hanoi unexpectedly released independent blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, also known by her pen name Mother Mushroom, following a visit by the then-US defense chief James Mattis. As a condition of her release, she was resettled in the US.

Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (L), also known as "Mother Mushroom", stands trial at a courthouse in the central city of Nha Trang on June 29, 2017.A prominent Vietnamese blogger known as "Mother Mushroom" went on trial on June 29 for anti-state propaganda, a court clerk said, as rights groups decried the charges as "outrageous" and demanded her immediate release. / AFP PHOTO / Vietnam News Agency / STR
Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, left, also known as ‘Mother Mushroom,’ stands trial at a courthouse in the central city of Nha Trang on June 29, 2017. Photo: AFP / Vietnam News Agency

Had Harris secured a similar agreement for any high-profile political prisoners, Quang A said it would have been politically beneficial at home for both Harris and her Vietnamese counterparts.

“The vice president not only has a voice for Vietnamese-American voters, but this also pleases the Vietnamese government because the Vietnamese government just wants to expel the activists to the US as soon as possible,” said Quang A.

The only two prisoner releases ultimately announced during Harris’ stay were both US citizens.

While more prisoners may be released in time, Pham Quang Minh, a former dean of the University for Social Sciences and Humanities in Hanoi, said that Vietnam was unlikely to significantly change course on human rights regardless of American policy.

“The US has made it clear that they support a strong, independent and prosperous Vietnam and that they respect the difference in political institutions,” he said, adding that Hanoi does not see the differences as particularly detrimental to improved relations.

“For the US, human rights will be considered a serious obstacle to relations but Vietnam doesn’t consider it a big issue.”