Monday, November 1, 2010

Maturing Vietnam-US relations

When Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, chided Vietnam over its recent human rights record during a joint press conference in Hanoi on Saturday with Pham Gia Khiem, Vietnam's Foreign Minister, he grimaced for a brief moment before relaxing and offering the following response:

In my talk with Madame Secretary, we agreed that in human rights, we have a lot of differences between the US and Vietnam and I told Madame Secretary that we should continue carrying out a dialogue to resolve our differences.

While cynics might say that he is effectively sticking two fingers up at his American counterpart, the mellow tone of his reply is significant. In the past, the Vietnamese government has reacted angrily to criticism from the US and others over human rights, insisting that they have no right to interfere in its internal affairs.

Ever since relations between the former warring parties were normalised 15 years ago, Vietnam has been aware of the economic importance of developing its trade relations with the US. Over the last couple of years, there has also been an increasing realisation in both countries of the need to strengthen their political and strategic ties, in order to better balance the growing regional power of China.

It can't have been easy for Khiem to stand up, in front of the Vietnamese and international press and TV cameras, and let Clinton's comments wash over him but it was a sign of the maturity of the relationship between the two countries.

The US thinks that arresting bloggers and limiting academic and press freedom will damage Vietnam's growth prospects. The Vietnamese government disagrees. But both sides can accept the difference of opinion and move on to more fruitful area of co-operation, at least for now.

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