The Complex Relationship Between Trade and Religious Freedom in Vietnam

Religious and economic freedom are often indispensably related, and nowhere has that relationship been more controversial than in the Trans-pacific partnership (TPP), the negotiation between 12 countries; including Chile, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the United States. In May, the U.S Senate passed a religious freedom amendment to the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). The amendment added a provision to the overall negotiating objectives which requires the United States to take religious freedom into account whenever negotiating international trade agreements.

Today’s TPP negotiations come nearly a decade after the United States removed Vietnam from the list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs) for systematic violations of religious freedom. Removal from this list paved the way for permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) and Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). When the United States initially designated Vietnam a CPC in 2004, it was clear that to both sides that PNTR and WTO membership would require significant improvements in religious freedom. Fortunately for both sides, Vietnam made the necessary improvements, and so did the bilateral trade relationship.

Will the TPP be similarly beneficial for religious freedom and human rights progress in Vietnam? According to theState Department’s most recent religious freedom report, the Vietnamese central government made efforts to improve religious freedom in the country by registering faith communities. However, harassment of religious minorities is still a common feature at the local level. Human rights advocates in the U.S. have urged the Obama administration not to approve TPP agreement with Vietnam unless the country improves its record on religious freedom and other human rights. This advocacy is definitely on the minds of TPP negotiators as it connects to other TPP concerns including transparency, unions, environmental protection, labor safety, equal wages, and corruption.

To many Vietnamese people, religious freedom has nothing to do with business or trade. With the Vietnam-U.S. War in the back of their minds, many still perceive the United States as an enemy that uses religious freedom as a means of deterring Vietnam’s economic development. Subsequently, many Vietnamese see limitations on religious practice as a tiny issue, and wonder why the United States would let the issue complicate trade negotiations.

The difference between American and Vietnamese understandings of religious freedom can be best understood with two contrasting terms: protection vs. precaution.

The U.S and Vietnam constitutions both state clearly that religious freedom is protected by law. In practice, however, their religious freedom records are significantly different. For Americans, religious freedom is a foundational value: all American school children are taught that they have individual right to practice or not practice a religion. The American legal system allows individuals and groups to sue the government when religious liberties are violated.

In Vietnam’s one-party system it is impossible for any entity to sue the government for any reason, not excluding religious freedom abuses. The country’s religion policy sets limitations and even bans certain religious activities. Although Vietnamese lawmakers have moved away from Marxist economics, they still hold a Marxist view of religion. In this view, religion is a potential threat to social and political stability, so it must not be practiced “too freely.” Indeed, Pew Research’s survey indicates that the Vietnam’s restrictions on religious freedom remain along the highest in the world.

But things are changing. The Vietnamese central government has provided “trainings” on religious freedom for officials, helping them recognize the positive role of religion in society. In the past few years, academic institutions have added religion and policy studies to their research work and degree training. Vietnam is now working on its first-ever religion law. One can only hope that lawmakers will take into account the positive models and best practices of other countries. Recently, a team of Vietnamese lawmakers and educators participated in a conference on “Religion and the Rule of Law Comparative Studies: Vietnam and the United States” in Washington, D.C.

All of these efforts demonstrate Vietnam’s willingness to address religious freedom issues, which certainly bodes well for TPP negotiations and Vietnam’s long-term self interest.

While the human rights-related concerns of TPP negotiators might sound harsh to some Vietnamese, the TPP will help introduce a fertile connection between business, trade, and religious freedom to the country in the long run.

When introducing the TPA amendment, Sen. James Lankford stated:

“When people have freedom of conscience and faith, they're also better trading partners. Their country is stable, their families are stable, and their economy will grow. With that I encourage this body to do something new. Let's start exporting the values that we hold dear, not to compel nations to have our faith but to have other nations recognize the power of freedom of religion within their own border.”

Vietnam is eager to further integrate itself into the global economy. The TPP—with 12 participating countries representing more than 40 percent of the world’s GDP—will have much to offer to Vietnam. A smooth negotiation for a TPP agreement is within Vietnam’s reach; the government simply needs to demonstrate that it is a trustworthy trading partner who is serious about protecting the religious liberties of its people.

-Hien Vu is Vietnam Program Manager at the Institute for Global Engagement, a think-and-do tank working at the critical intersection of religion and global affairs, building sustainable environments for religious freedom worldwide.