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Mr. Sang goes to Washington

| Tuesday, July 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

For only the second time since the Vietnam War ended, a Vietnamese head of state will visit the White House on Thursday. President Barack Obama and Truong Tan Sang are expected to discuss, among other issues, human rights abuses, particularly the Vietnamese crackdown on what it calls anti-government activity.

In the first five months of 2013, 50 Vietnamese were convicted in political trials, already more than the total number of political convictions in 2012. The government appears to be targeting individuals and groups that have called for democratic reforms or publicly criticized government policies.

A particularly sensitive policy that has gained some criticism from Vietnamese citizens is the country's relationship with China. Vietnam and China's past relationship has been murky. But it is in Vietnam's best interest to keep a stable, friendly relationship with its neighbor to the north.

China is Vietnam's largest trading partner and, as a communist government, the Vietnamese cannot help but look to China's “prosperity” as it attempts to meet its goal of a growing middle-class economy by 2020. Many Vietnamese citizens, however, prefer Western influences, especially those of the United States.

“I do think Vietnam should have a positive relationship (with the United States),” said Duong Nguyen, a consumer products distributor from Ho Chi Minh City. “I think it's very easy — if we make more friends, we avoid enemies.”

The Vietnam-China relationship has been rocky. Vietnam is cautious about China's effect in Southeast Asia. And when Sang meets with Obama, they also plan to discuss both countries' claims to islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam hopes the United States will support its position.

Of course there are economic incentives to be discussed at Thursday's meeting. China might be Vietnam's largest trading partner but its largest export market is the United States. Trade between the United States and Vietnam has skyrocketed in the last decade. In 2012, the U.S. imported $20 billion of goods from Vietnam and is on track to import $25 billion in 2013.

Vietnam is attempting to achieve Generalized System of Preference (GSP) status with the United States. The GSP program's intention is to “promote economic growth and development in developing countries.” The Obama administration is reluctant to accept Vietnam into the GSP program until it vows to improve its human rights and human trafficking records.

Sang's visit is a sign of further progress that began in 1995, when diplomatic relations were re-established, and continued in 2000 when President Bill Clinton visited the country, the first American president to visit since 1969.

“Vietnam right now is a developing country, and I think it's important to have a good relationship with any other country, the U.S. especially,” said Thu Aguyen, a student from Long Xuyen, who has been studying at West Virginia University for the past two years. “For economic reasons, more investments from the U.S. can come to Vietnam and I think that will help.”

Robert Kreis (rkreis8@gmail.com) is a freelance reporter in Scranton, Pa. who blogged from Vietnam in 2012 (vietnam.blogs.wvu.edu).

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