Trudeau travels to Vietnam with history, human rights and trade top of mind

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in Vietnam today for a two-day state visit ahead of the APEC summit, only the second such meeting between the two countries' leaders since the end of war and the normalization of relations.

Asian country still grappling with its past and side-effects of its breakneck economic growth

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boards a government plane in Montreal on Monday night as he heads off for a state visit and to attend the APEC summit in Vietnam. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in Vietnam today for a two-day state visit ahead of the APEC summit, only the second such meeting between the two countries' leaders since the end of war and the normalization of relations.

It is a bilateral relationship undeniably defined by the Vietnam war as Canada's peripheral involvement in that U.S.-led conflict left an indelible mark on the national psyche.

"For many Canadians, when you say the word Vietnam they will think first of the war — and indeed they might simply say Vietnam and mean the Vietnam war," Robert McGill, a University of Toronto professor and the author of War Is Here: The Vietnam War and Canadian Literature.

"But Vietnam is not just a period in time. It's actually a country with a much longer history than one of war with the United States."

Canada's relative neutrality in the war secured its position as one of the world's champions of peacekeeping, and later, thousands of Vietnamese boat people would be welcomed to Canada, fleeing the resulting chaos that created by the fall of Saigon.

A Canadian military officer with Viet Cong soldiers in a village South Vietnam in March 1973. United States pulled out of South Vietnam with the December 1972 Paris Accord. The South was overrun two years later in April 1975. (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

"The war has had a tremendous impact on Canadian identity — it was the central issue in a decade when Canadian identity was undergoing a significant reconsideration, and the nation itself was undergoing many changes."

For many of the Vietnam's leaders, including its current prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, whom Trudeau will meet Wednesday, the war is personal. His mother and one of his sisters were killed in the conflict while working with the Viet Cong and living in what was then South Vietnam.

The familial home was destroyed three times by bombings, before he picked up and moved north to the communist-controlled area for his studies, according to Vietnamese state news outlets. The country's president, Tran Dại Quang, has similarly impeccable revolutionary credentials.

A South Vietnamese soldier rests on his helmet near Saigon in March 1973. (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

Much has changed in the southeast Asian country since that conflict, although it is still a one-party socialist republic ruled by a politbureau that espouses the virtues of its own brand of communism. It has embraced aspects of market economics in some sectors, leading the Economist magazine to dub the country's leadership "ardently capitalist communists."

TPP minus Trump

Vietnam is now one of Asia's fastest-growing economies in large part due to its openness to trade — fuelled by a mass of cheap labour — and a big trade imbalance with the United States. The country was counting on even greater access to the U.S. market through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a deal U.S. President Donald Trump dumped shortly after taking office.

Despite Trump's move, Canada, Vietnam and the nine other original signatories, are still in negotiations to keep the deal alive. Reports have suggested renewed talks are now in the "final stretch," with some countries pushing for a signing at the APEC summit. Sources in Ottawa have sought to tamp down such optimism. A government official, speaking on background ahead of the trip, said Canada "isn't there yet."

Stewart Beck, chief executive of the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada, said the APEC summit in Da Nang will be an opportune time to hammer out a deal. "I think that will be consuming a lot of time, and a lot of air," he said of TPP. "It's getting some sunshine now because of what's going on with NAFTA."

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc during their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in May 2017. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

The pact aims to eliminate tariffs on industrial and farm products across a bloc whose trade totaled $356.3 billion last year. Bilateral trade between Canada and Vietnam is fairly substantial, but it's lopsided. Vietnam sent $5 billion worth of goods here, much of it textiles, while Canada by comparison exported just $500 million worth of products to Vietnam.

The country is still grappling with its past, and the side effects of its newfound, breakneck economic growth. Vietnam's GDP is expected to grow by 6.7 per cent this year. Canada, by comparison, is leading other G7 countries with a projected growth rate of 3.2 per cent.

'Link with human rights'

Conservative Senator Thanh Hai Ngo, a former officer in the south Vietnamese armed forces who fled to Canada after the fall of Saigon in 1975, said Trudeau's economic overtures should be combined with specific demands to improve the state of human rights in the country.

"Canada is a country of trade, we have to do trade, we agree with that, but trade has to link with human rights, it has to link with the labour law, it has to link to [reforming] commercial law.

"Right now, it's like doing business with your eyes closed," Ngo, a frequent critic of the communist regime, who hasn't returned to his native land since the war, said in an interview with CBC News. "Trade and human rights must go hand in hand."

Ngo said, despite economic growth, wealth has accrued mostly to people in highest echelons of the communist party, and political leaders are siphoning money from state-owned corporations. "The Vietnamese communist government, all Vietnamese officials, I can say, are corrupt. That's the word we can use with no problem," Ngo said.

Canadian Conservative Senator Thanh Hai Ngo said many senior officials in the Vietnamese government are corrupt. (Senate of Canada)

"Everybody over there, as long as they have the power, it's time for them to be rich, line their pockets, and they just don't care about the Vietnamese people, I'm afraid to say."

Ngo's office has compiled a criticial human rights report, which shames the country for its draconian measures to crack down on free expression, assembly and religion (the faithful have to register with the government to legally worship), and its affinity for plainclothes police officers who spy on citizens, jail bloggers and allow poor working conditions in the country's many textile factories.

He said Canada, given its trade imbalance and its role as a top customer for Vietnamese businesses, shouldn't be afraid to press for reforms.

"We have an upper hand, and Canada has the opportunity now that Prime Minister Trudeau is going there, he has the opportunity to raise the issue of human rights, of releasing political prisoners, I think that's the key. It's a good chance for Canada to make our presence known, and let our values be known."

Ngo said he'd like to invite Trudeau to a meeting with the Vietnamese community after the trip to "let us know what he did.

"I can organize the meeting for him, I could have a group of 5,000 or 10,000 people there to hear what he has to say." 


John Paul Tasker

Senior reporter

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.