Rights and freedoms ignored as Trump schmoozes in Hanoi

President Trump stressed trade in his talks with Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi. Photo courtesy Reuter

President Trump’s 12-day tour of Asia confirmed, if nothing else, his special affinity with authoritarian leaders.

He had back-slapping encounters with the leaders of China, Cambodia and the Philippines, and managed a series of congenial meetings with the masters of Vietnam’s all powerful Communist party.

There was no mention, in public at least, of Vietnam’s dire and deteriorating human rights record.

It was a disappointment, but hardly a surprise, for Vietnam’s beleaguered advocates of religious and political freedom.

Absolute power

Mai Khoi, a popular singer now marginalised for her activism, was forced to cower in her apartment as secret police agents closed in, following her attempt to protest as Mr Trump’s motorcade passed by.

Other activists were prevented from leaving their homes; not one was invited to meet Mr Trump, in sharp contrast to the one hour meeting with dissidents held by President Obama on his visit last year.

Senator John McCain expressed his dismay at Mr Trump’s omission in an angry tweet. Twenty members of Congress had written to Mr Trump before the visit, pleading with him to call Vietnam to account over its abuses.

On his Asia tour, Mr Trump made no attempt to cover up his awe at the near absolute power wielded by Xi Jinping in China; his lack of interest in the promotion of rights and freedoms was just as apparent in Vietnam as in China.

It looks like a free pass for the Vietnamese authorities, once rather sensitive to Western criticism, as they press ahead with their campaign to silence dissent and crush the nascent civil society movement.

Intimidation, arrests and lengthy custodial sentences continued without a break in the run up to the presidential visit.

“Play by the rules”

Vietnam, however, does have other reasons to be wary of President Trump’s style and objectives; the leaders in Hanoi are unlikely to have been lulled into complacency by their encounters with him.

President Trump’s focus was on trade, and that’s an uncomfortable area for Vietnam, given the administration’s abrupt withdrawal from the TPP and subsequent investigation into Vietnam’s $32 billion trade surplus.

“For trade to work, all countries must play by the rules,” Mr Trump said at a joint appearance with President Tran Dai Quang.

“We just had a great discussion about American goods and services coming into Vietnam. Two-way street. I am confident that American energy, agriculture, financial services, aviation, digital commerce, and defence products are able to meet all of your many commercial needs.”

The implication is clear enough, the US wants concessions from Vietnam on a booming trading relationship that has so far been of most benefit to Vietnamese exporters.

Vietnam was also looking for a signal of clear American support against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea.

An offer of arms sales from Mr Trump may have been welcome, but his proposal to mediate between Vietnam and China was likely greeted with puzzlement and some consternation.

Vietnam is wary of President Trump’s evolving bromance with President Xi, and is alert to a possible sellout in the South China Sea as the two superpowers seek an accommodation over trade and North Korea.

Vietnam wants a clear commitment from the United States to hold the line on “freedom of navigation”, and to stand up for smaller nations in danger of being bulldozed aside by the growing military might of China.