Vietnam President to Visit White House Amid Dissident Crackdown

Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang plans to visit the U.S. to meet President Barack Obama as the former foes seek closer economic and military ties despite concerns the Communist country is cracking down on dissidents.

Obama will meet Sang on July 25 to discuss human rights, climate change and Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks, the White House said in a statement. Sang, who visited China last month, is one of the three senior-most leaders in Vietnam, with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung running the government and Nguyen Phu Trong heading the Communist Party.

The visit may further the two sides’ effort to counter China’s growing assertiveness over disputed territory in the South China Sea as neighboring countries vie for oil, gas and fish. Obama is shifting military resources to the region and seeks to conclude the TPP later this year with 10 other Asia-Pacific countries, including Vietnam.

“The visit is important for Vietnam because Vietnam needs the presence of the U.S. in Southeast Asia to keep a balance of power,” Le Dang Doanh, an economist who has advised Dung and formerly headed the Central Institute for Economic Management, said in an e-mail. “Vietnam wishes to get a renewed commitment of the U.S.” to help resolve tensions in the South China Sea, he wrote.

Last month, Senior Lieutenant General Do Ba Ty became the first chief of general staff of the Vietnam People’s Army to visit the Pentagon. Ty and Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the Obama administration’s “rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region,” Navy Commander Scott McIlnay said in an e-mailed statement.

Political Prisoners

Human rights advocates have pushed the U.S. to make trade deals, humanitarian aid and arms sales contingent on an improvement in Vietnam’s human rights record, according to a report issued last month by the Congressional Research Service.

Last year, Dung ordered a crackdown on blogs that attacked his leadership over an economy hurt by inefficient state-owned companies, a banking system riddled with bad debt, and government corruption. Many of Vietnam’s more than 120 political prisoners are in jail for speaking out, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Baer told a congressional committee June 5.

“In increasing numbers, bloggers continue to be harassed and jailed for peaceful online speech and activists live under a continual cloud,” Baer said.

Trade Talks

Vietnam’s leaders are under pressure to boost the country’s economy, which the government targets to grow 5.5 percent this year. That would be Vietnam’s first period of three straight years of growth below six percent since 1988, according to International Monetary Fund data.

In the TPP talks, Vietnam is looking to reduce tariffs on clothing and shoe exports to the U.S., said Adam Sitkoff, executive director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam. The U.S. wants Vietnam to stop giving preferential treatment to state-owned companies, he said.

Since the countries signed a trade agreement in December 2001, two-way commerce between the U.S. and Vietnam increased to $26 billion last year from from about $1 billion, according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: John Boudreau in Hanoi at jboudreau3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Nicholas Wadhams at nwadhams@bloomberg.net

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