The Cable

Vietnamese Prime Minister Comes to Talk Trade

On the agenda? Trade and security in the South China Sea. Human rights? Not so much.

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Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc is meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. The White House statement said the meeting was meant to “deepen regional cooperation with one of America’s important partners in Southeast Asia.” For Vietnam, that’s particularly important in one arena: trade.

Before Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Vietnam was expected to get an economic boost of at least eight percentage points — more than any other signatory to the agreement. And so now Vietnam is left to consider how, exactly, it can continue to improve trade with the United States, particularly given that the U.S. has a $32 billion trade deficit with Vietnam.

In order to make overcome the deficit as deterrent to healthy trade relations, Vietnam is giving in order to get. Phuc is expected to sign deals for U.S. goods and services worth between $15 and 17 billion.

Vietnam is also looking to tie economic exchange with the United States to support in the South China Sea. Vietnam, which, like the United States, has expressed concern about increased Chinese presence in the South China Sea, recently encouraged its neighbors to go against Chinese wishes by joining the United States in joint military exercises. If U.S. relations are now based on security and so-called pragmatism, Vietnam could be an increasingly important ally, for a price.

Amnesty International describes contemporary Vietnam as severely restricting “rights to freedom of expression, of association and of peaceful assembly continued.” But since the Trump administration has made clear the United States is, at present, focused on pragmatism over principle, rights advocates are looking to Congress, rather than the White House.

“When US leaders raise names publicly, it can often lead to those prisoners being treated better in prison—and released sooner. That is reason enough to mention them by name,” wrote John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, in a Huffington Post piece about and ahead of Phuc’s visit. But “It is up to Congress” — that is, not Trump’s White House — “to make sure that message is sent.”

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

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