Rivalry with China in the spotlight, human rights behind the scenes, or at least in the background: US President Joe Biden is traveling to Vietnam on Sunday with the intention of taking the bilateral relationship to another level .
Since 1995, every American president has passed through the Southeast Asian country.
“For decades, the United States and Vietnam have worked to overcome the painful common legacy of the Vietnam War,” Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s principal diplomatic advisor, explained on Tuesday.
This legacy will be very present during the visit of Joe Biden, who is to pay his respects on Monday in Hanoi in front of the monument dedicated to John McCain, former hero of this conflict who subsequently became a figure of the Republican Party, and died in 2019.
The American president, who flew to the G20 summit in New Delhi on Thursday, is due to arrive in Hanoi on Sunday to meet the leader of the ruling Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, and give a press conference.
The 80-year-old Democrat will meet with Vietnam's prime minister and president on Monday and take part in a meeting with business leaders.
This trip “is a spectacular step,” assured the White House National Security Advisor.
Experts expect the United States and Vietnam to enter into a "comprehensive strategic partnership", the highest degree of diplomatic proximity established by Hanoi.
“This sounds like nonsense to us Americans but for Vietnam (...) it is really important,” according to Gregory Poling, specialist in Southeast Asia at the Center for strategic and international studies.
So far, Vietnam has only established such a partnership with Russia, India, South Korea, and China.
And it is China that Joe Biden has in mind with this visit, he who is carrying out intense diplomatic activity in Asia in order to stand up to the second world power.
Which does not remain passive: Beijing sent a high-level delegation to Vietnam this week. According to the state agency New China, officials from the two countries, which suffered several border conflicts between 1979 and 1991, promised to "strengthen (their) solidarity and cooperation".
Vietnam "has always said not to take sides, not to choose the United States against China. The Americans know it very well", notes Nguyen Quoc Cuong, former ambassador of Vietnam to the United States (2011-2014).
The American president is nevertheless betting that Vietnam is not sorry to move a little closer to Washington, at a time when Beijing's claims in the South China Sea are an almost permanent source of tension for the region.
Joe Biden, campaigning for his re-election, also thinks in economic terms. He wants to establish global industrial circuits less dependent on China and for this, he needs Vietnam, which is looking for partners and capital in order to move upmarket technologically.
Joe Biden, experienced in the exercise in his relations with India or Saudi Arabia, will once again juggle between well-felt strategic interest and the defense of human rights - a cornerstone, according to the White House, of his diplomacy.
His visit comes shortly after the release of a harsh report by the US government's Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF). She denounces “persistent and seemingly worsening” violations of religious freedom in Vietnam.
The American State Department points to “significant human rights problems” in the country.
"We always raise issues relating to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and other fundamental human rights. (...) This trip will be no exception," assured Jake Sullivan.
In Vietnam, activists have no illusions.
“I don’t expect serious pressure from the United States and the European Union,” says Le Cong Dinh, a former Vietnamese lawyer who was imprisoned for subversion. Faced with strategic and commercial interests, “the protection of human rights is no longer a priority.”
09/08/2023 06:41:59 - Hanoi (AFP) - © 2023 AFP