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Meeting delay a sign of cooling US-Vietnam ties

Tuesday - 12/11/2012, 2:13am  ET

By CHRIS BRUMMITT and MATTHEW PENNINGTON
Associated Press

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) - The U.S. and Vietnam, former enemies who share concerns about China's rise, are finding that one issue _ human rights _ is keeping them from becoming closer friends.

Stress between the nations is clear from a delay in an annual meeting between Washington and Hanoi on human-rights concerns. Such consultations have been held every year since 2006, but the last ones in November 2011 produced little, and a senior State Department official said the two sides were still working to "set the parameters" of the next round so it would yield progress.

The U.S. is frustrated over Vietnam's recent crackdown on bloggers, activists and religious groups it deems a threat to its grip on power, and over the detention of an American citizen on subversion charges that carry the death penalty.

"We have not seen the improvements that we would like," the State Department official said last week on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly. "We would very much like to see concrete actions."

The delay in holding the meeting, to be hosted by Hanoi, could just be a matter of weeks. But it underscores how Vietnam's worsening treatment of dissidents over the last two years has complicated efforts to strengthen its ties with the U.S.

Vietnam's foreign affairs ministry spokesman Luong Thanh Nghi said the human rights dialogues had "contributed to enhancing trust" between the two countries and that both sides were in discussion on the timing of the next round. A U.S. Embassy spokesman also said the countries were discussing when to hold the talks.

Like Washington, Vietnam wants deeper trading and security relations, but the U.S. says it must be accompanied by improvements in human rights. Some influential members of Congress are also pressing the Obama administration to get tougher on Hanoi's suppression of dissent and religious freedom.

Vietnam's relationship with the U.S. has improved greatly in recent years, largely because of shared concerns over China's increasing assertiveness in Southeast Asia. Their shared strategic interests are reflected most clearly in U.S. diplomacy in the South China Sea, where Beijing's territorial claims clash with those of Vietnam and four other countries in the region.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Vietnam has opened its economy but has been unwilling to grant religious or political freedom to its 87 million people. The U.S. and Vietnam restored diplomatic relations in 1995, 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War, and their rapprochement has accelerated as President Barack Obama has prioritized stronger ties with Southeast Asia.

Vietnam's crackdown on dissent follows a downturn in its once-robust economy. Analysts say Hanoi's leadership is defensive about domestic criticism of its economic policies, corruption scandals and infighting, much of it being spread on the Internet, out of their control.

Last year, Vietnam locked up more than 30 peaceful activists, bloggers and dissidents, according to Human Rights Watch. This year, 12 activists have been convicted in short, typically one-day trials, and sentenced to unusually long prison terms. Seven others are awaiting trial. The country is also preparing laws to crackdown on Internet freedoms.

"The internal party ructions have trumped everything," said Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam from the University of New South Wales. "They are so paranoid about criticism they don't care about the U.S."

The detention and looming trial of American democracy activist Nguyen Quoc Quan may be the clearest example of Hanoi's unwillingness to listen to American concerns over human rights.

Quan, 59, was arrested at Ho Chi Minh City airport in April soon after arriving on a flight from the United States, where he has lived since fleeing Vietnam by boat as a young man. Quan's family and friends say he is a leading member of Viet Tan, a nonviolent pro-democracy group that the Vietnamese authorities have labeled a terrorist outfit. He was detained in 2007 in Vietnam for six months.

Authorities initially accused Quan of terrorism, but he is now charged with subversion against the state, which carries a punishment ranging from 12 years in prison to death.

With the investigation now complete, his trial could be near. Court dates are typically released only a few days in advance.

According to a copy of the indictment obtained by The Associated Press, Quan met with fellow Vietnamese activists in Thailand and Malaysia between 2009 and 2010 and discussed Internet security and nonviolent resistance. The indictment said he traveled to Vietnam under a passport issued under the name of Richard Nguyen in 2011, when he recruited four other members of Viet Tan.

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