Trade and defence likely to trump rights and freedoms

The destroyer, USS Dewey, passed withing 12 miles of Mischief Reef in a gesture aimed at China’s ambitions in the South China Sea. Photo courtesy US Navy.

Members of the US Congress have called on President Trump to stress human rights abuses in Vietnam when he meets the visiting prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, in Washington next week.

“It is bad and getting worse by the day,” said Congressman Chris Smith as he chaired a hearing on Vietnam at the House of Representatives.

“We’re appealing to the president and the vice president, and Secretary Tillerson, to take seriously that they have a moral obligation to raise these cases.”

Some members of Congress and rights activists are concerned that the US is losing interest in human rights, as it seeks to develop a strategy consistent with President Trump’s “America First” approach.

They say that the Obama administration also increasingly acquiesced as the Communist authorities in Vietnam stepped up the arrest of independent bloggers, and subjected others to a campaign of violence and intimidation.

Far from championing democratic value so far, President Trump has shown an enthusiasm for strongman rulers, including the presidents of Egypt, Turkey and the Philippines.

Chinese expansionism

Despite the appeals of some Republicans in Congress, his talks with Mr Phuc are expected to focus on economic and strategic ties.

Vietnam lobbied hard for the visit, the first by a South-east Asian leader to Washington since President Trump came to office.

Mr Phuc will be seeking reassurances that the administration is not out to punish Vietnam for its large trade surplus with the US. He is expected to push for a bilateral trade deal, following Mr Trump’s scrapping of the regional TPP, and to try to gauge the strength of the administration’s commitments in the South China Sea.

The US navy sent a warship, USS Dewey, on a “freedom of navigation” mission near the Chinese held island of Mischief Reef this week.

The mission – the first since President Trump came to power – gave some reassurance to Vietnam, which has felt isolated in its efforts to hold the line against Chinese expansion.

A single mission, however, does not make up for what many in Asia see as an erratic and inconsistent approach by the new administration.

The Vietnamese, like others in the region, have been anxious not to antagonise China – fearing that the US is no longer a reliable partner.

The new administration’s heavy emphasis on North Korea, and on China’s role as Pyongyang’s ally, has led to talk of a grand bargain between the two superpowers, a deal that could mean gains for Beijing elsewhere in Asia.