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As Vietnam grows ties with U.S., a secret directive seeks to gird the Communist Party

U.S. President Joe Biden attends a welcoming ceremony hosted by Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at the Presidential Palace of Vietnam in Hanoi on Sept. 10, 2023.
AFP via Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden attends a welcoming ceremony hosted by Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at the Presidential Palace of Vietnam in Hanoi on Sept. 10, 2023.

Updated March 11, 2024 at 12:17 PM ET

Last summer, as the United States and Vietnam finalized plans to upgrade the bilateral relationship, the Communist leadership in Hanoi issued a secret directive that aimed to limit outside influences and protect the party's grip on power in the face of growing exposure to the U.S. and its allies.

Analysts say the six-page document — known as "Directive 24" and issued by the ruling Communist Party's elite Politburo — offers a window into the motivations and concerns of party leaders as they committed to deepen Vietnam's links with an erstwhile enemy and leverage shifting geopolitical sands to upgrade the country's economy.

The directive outlines a set of broad measures designed to protect national security and limit threats to the country's political system "in the context of comprehensive and deep international integration."

Curtailing foreign influence

Among the provisions, it says the party should "closely manage" Vietnamese citizens who go abroad. It imposes limits on the types of labor organizing allowed in the country. It advocates tighter control over foreign aid flowing into Vietnam, and heightened vigilance "to prevent attempts to exert influence though economic, cultural and social activities."

It aims to curtail foreign influence in policymaking and stop groups inside and outside Vietnam from using increased international cooperation to promote civil society and domestic political organizations.

Project88, a Vietnam-focused human rights group that shared a copy of the document with NPR, said the directive should put to rest "magical thinking" in the United States and Europe that deeper ties with Vietnam will help promote human rights in the country.

"The directive frames all forms of international commerce and cooperation as threats to national security and articulates a disturbing plan to deal with these perceived threats by systematically violating the human rights of the country's 100 million citizens, who, by virtue of the classified nature of the directive, are completely unaware of its contents," Project88 wrote in an analysis.

Vietnam's Embassy in Washington did not respond to NPR's emailed questions about the directive before publication of this article on March 1.

On March 8, the country's Foreign Ministry wrote in a statement to NPR: "Taking account of the complicated developments of the world and the region, Viet Nam has issued various documents and conducted different measures to strengthen its national security, including close coordination with other countries with a view to safeguarding national security, human security, and to ensuring the peaceful and happy life of the people."

Vietnamese state media have referred to the directive by name, but the contents have not been made public in full. NPR was able to cross-reference the contents of the copy of the directive provided by Project88 with a copy from another source.

Directive ahead of "comprehensive strategic partnership" with the U.S.

Directive 24 is dated July 13, 2023. Two months later, on Sept. 10, President Biden and Vietnamese Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong met in Hanoi where they elevated the bilateral relationship to a "comprehensive strategic partnership". It is the highest level of country-to-country relations recognized by the Vietnamese government.

While neither side mentioned China, it was an elephant in the room.

Analysts say the Biden administration sees deeper ties with Vietnam as potentially helpful in countering Beijing in the Indo-Pacific, although the administration has denied that it intends to contain China.

Vietnam, for its part, has been motivated by friction between China and the West, and supply chain "de-risking," to bolster its economy and further hedge against aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea, analysts say.

For Hanoi, it goes beyond just the U.S., though.

Vietnam and South Korea launched a comprehensive strategic partnership at the end of 2022. And in November 2023, Hanoi forged a similar agreement with Japan.

Directive 24 articulates a "bottom line"

Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert based in Canberra, said Hanoi is expected to complete a strategic partnership deal with Australia in the coming weeks. Vietnam already has a free trade agreement with the European Union.

"The reason [for] these comprehensive strategic partnerships is that China's economy was stalled, relations with China were severely hurt by its lockdown during COVID, and the global economy was slowing down. And so if Vietnam wanted to get out of wallowing and move on to high tech digital development, it needed to move forward with these modern economies," Thayer said.

He said Directive 24 articulates a "bottom line" as the party girds for more foreign interaction.

"What this is really doing is preparing people. 'All right, we're going to open up ... and that's going to challenge our system'," Thayer said.

Nhu Truong, an assistant professor at Denison University, said it sends a strong signal at a pivotal time.

"I think it's a matter of the need to establish the party's stance in light of something that seems to be so historic, and is gathering so much international attention, as well as national attention," Truong said.

"It's a way to signal both internally to the party, as well as to outside observers, that Vietnam nevertheless is not budging politically."

The directive comes amid a multi-year crackdown on civil society under party leader Trong that has gathered pace, according to Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"It really intensified during the COVID crisis when the international community wasn't paying any attention," he said. "What we've seen is the democracy and human rights advocacy group individuals and their networks have been basically wiped out in Vietnam."

Analysts say the directive "does not provide a compelling national security argument for restricting rights"

In the past two years, he said, the party has trained its sights on environmental NGOs, rounding up activists.

Robertson and Project88 say Directive 24 demonstrates the party's lack of interest in protecting human rights, despite commitments to do so, and its fraught relationship with the international community.

"Joe Biden went over there last year, signed a whole bunch of various different economic and security cooperation deals, said that human rights was the top of the agenda for him. But the reality is it's not at the top of the agenda or anywhere near the top of the agenda for the ruling party in Vietnam," Robertson said.

Project88 said the directive "does not provide a compelling national security argument for restricting rights" and contradicts both international law and the country's constitution.

"Foreign governments and observers must understand that Vietnam's international integration will, as Directive 24 is implemented, coincide with increased violations of, not greater respect for, human rights," it said.

Vietnam's Foreign Ministry argued in its March 8 statement to NPR that Hanoi is "committed to seriously executing its international commitments, including the commitments in the areas of trade and human rights.​"

Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from Vietnam's Foreign Ministry.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.