July 16, 2012
The U.S. Secretary of State connects human rights and prosperity.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have been disappointed in her efforts to push Southeast Asia toward unity on South China Sea territorial disputes, but that doesn’t mean her pass through the region last week yielded no results. During her brief stay in Hanoi, Mrs. Clinton delivered a particularly important message on human rights.
"I know there are some who argue that developing economies need to put economic growth first and worry about political reform and democracy later, but that is a short-sighted bargain," Mrs. Clinton said after meeting her Vietnamese counterpart. U.S. officials said that during her private session with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Mrs. Clinton raised specific cases of bloggers and other activists who have been detained in recent years for peaceful dissent.
The Secretary’s comments continue an unsung but important and potentially effective aspect of the Obama Administration’s strategic "pivot" to Asia. Mrs. Clinton has consistently pressed Hanoi to improve its rights record. Vietnam’s authoritarian government is susceptible to pressure on this point because it is increasingly eager to cultivate closer ties with America to counterbalance China’s influence.
Hanoi has been backsliding on rights despite some limited progress on religious freedom in the middle of last decade. The most notable example is the April arrest of U.S. citizen Nguyen Quoc Quan on charges related to peaceful pro-democracy activism. Presumably Mrs. Clinton raised his case in private, although it’s disappointing she didn’t do so in public. That followed a string of arrests of bloggers—many pushing Hanoi to take a stronger stand against China in South China Sea disputes—that have been part of a long-term crackdown on online dissent.
Mrs. Clinton also helpfully tied the rights issue to economic development. This isn’t mere rhetoric. Hanoi already blocks its citizens from accessing uncensored social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Now the regime also is contemplating a draconian Internet regulation that would force foreign service providers to block access to Vietnamese-language content that Hanoi deems objectionable, no matter where the company is based.
Meanwhile, Vietnam will need to undertake major domestic reforms to boost growth, which at 4.4% lags many of its Asian peers. Challenges include privatizing large state-owned enterprises, encouraging greater foreign investment, and fostering more private entrepreneurship at home. Those reforms will be helped by the kind of freedoms and rule of law that Hanoi today undermines in its crack-down on political dissent. Developing a healthy economy will make Vietnam a stronger ally for the U.S. in the region.
One speech won’t convert Vietnam’s Communist Party. And it must be noted that the Obama Administration’s human-rights stance in Asia hasn’t always been either strong or effective. But in Vietnam, Mrs. Clinton is talking the right talk. One way to follow up would be to keep pressing Hanoi, often and publicly, to release activists such as Mr. Quan and to rethink its proposed Internet law.
Source: The Wall Street Journal