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U.S. Downplays Human Rights in Vietnam Leader's Visit

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Vietnam's prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, is in Washington this week looking for some advice. He's set to meet with President Bush tomorrow at the White House where they'll discuss trade and investment.

Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, but it's showing signs of overheating. Inflation there is skyrocketing and its stock market is heading in the opposite direction.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Hanoi.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Three years ago, a prime ministerial visit to Washington was big news in Vietnam, the lead item on state-run television and in state-run newspapers, but not anymore.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

SULLIVAN: Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung's departure yesterday barely rated a mention on the evening news on in this morning's papers. An indication perhaps of how quickly the relationship between the two former enemies has matured.

Michael Michalak is the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.

Mr. MICHAEL MICHALAK (U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam): The difference between now and some of the earlier visits is the degree to which Vietnam has become more and more integrated into the international, not only economic, but social and political system. So even though we will have some very significant discussions on economics and commercial areas much the same as we did in the past, this time, the whole visit is about going to another level. And going to another level means we've got a much broader relationship.

SULLIVAN: Education, the environment, Vietnam's current seat on the U.N. Security Council all are on the agenda this week, Ambassador Michalak says, and all are new issues that he says go far beyond the usual economic and commercial discussions. Not that there won't be plenty of those with Prime Minister Dung keen on attracting more foreign investment to Vietnam. Two-way trade between the U.S. and Vietnam was worth more than $12 billion dollars last year, a figure Vietnam hopes to surpass this year.

But Vietnam's reputation as the new China with lower wages and a skilled workforce is now under threat as its booming economy overheats. Inflation last month hit 25 percent, the stock market has lost more than half its value this year, and the country has been hit with a series of strikes by workers demanding higher wages to keep up with inflation.

Professor CARL THAYER (Political Science, Australian Defense Force Academy): The Communist Party which bases its legitimacy on delivering economic goods has now begun to stall and the prime minister is taking the hit for that.

SULLIVAN: Professor Carl Thayer is a Vietnam watcher at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra.

Prof. THAYER: The government that has sat back and watched economic growth go on has now got to do harder management of the economy, and everybody thought Dung had the economic credentials to do so. And now he's got to show his guts and knowledge of how to manage the economy and the political power.

SULLIVAN: The U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Michael Michalak, says the prime minister's visit provides a good opportunity for Dung to reassure foreign investors his government can weather the current economic storm and continue to provide the cheap labor and political stability that have made Vietnam so attractive to investors.

Prime Minister Dung is scheduled to meet with former Fed chief Alan Greenspan later this week to seek his advice on how to make that happen.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.