U.S. President Barack Obama had a mixed message Tuesday for Vietnam’s leaders.
During his first visit to Vietnam, Obama spoke about the Vietnamese and American people beginning “on a 100-year journey together.” But he said Vietnam needs to do more to improve human rights.
The president made the comments in a speech at Hanoi’s National Convention Center.
Tuesday was the second day of Obama’s three-day trip to Vietnam. Earlier on his visit, he gave the Vietnamese government what it wanted – an end to an almost 50-year-old ban on selling military equipment to Vietnam.
“Just a generation ago, we were adversaries and now we are friends," he said.
In his speech, Obama said that Vietnam is now among the top 10 countries sending students to American colleges and universities. He said a record 19,000 Vietnamese are studying in the United States this year.
“And last year, Vietnam welcomed nearly half a million American tourists to this country, and I will assure you that more are on their way,” Obama said.
The president said the U.S. government would work with Vietnam for freedom of navigation on the South China Sea.
Human Rights Record Criticized
But he criticized Vietnam’s record on human rights. The country has more than 100 political prisoners, and more people were detained in the past week, according to activists.
Obama said that freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are part of Vietnam’s constitution. He also spoke about opening Vietnam’s political process to candidates from groups outside the Communist Party.
He said freedom of expression, including a free press, is critical to a nation’s progress.
"That's how a Facebook starts,” Obama said. “That's how some of our greatest companies began."
The president met with six activists on Tuesday. He noted that several others who were invited “were prevented from coming for various reasons.”
Ben Rhodes is the president’s deputy national security adviser. He said the U.S. government protested to Vietnamese officials about the activists stopped from meeting with Obama.
Rhodes said the United States will follow up to make sure activists who met with the president and those who could not are free and not punished.
'Milestone' moment for Vietnam-U.S. relations
Vietnam President Tran Dai Quang said his meeting with the president is an important “milestone” in relations between the two nations. The United States and then-North Vietnam fought against each other in the 1960s and 1970s.
In China, the government used the China Daily newspaper to express concerns about Obama’s meeting with Vietnamese leaders. It said it would be a mistake if the United States and Vietnam worked to stop the rise of China.
The conflict is mostly over the South China Sea. The United States and Vietnam have criticized China’s claims to the sea, one of the world’s most important waterways.
China says almost all of the South China Sea is part of its territory. In recent years, Chinese crews have developed artificial islands, complete with airstrips. But there are also claims by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
On Tuesday, the crowd at Hanoi’s National Convention Center cheered when Obama said, “Big nations should not bully smaller ones.” He said the relationship between the United States and Vietnam should be on “firmer footing for decades to come.”
But the China Daily said the president and Vietnam risk turning the region “into a tinderbox of conflicts.”
Future of Relations could be changed by next president
Whether or not Vietnam and the United States have good relations could be decided by the next U.S. president. The presidential election is less than six months away. The leading candidates are businessman Donald Trump and former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Simon Tay is head of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “After all, when she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton did play a major role in helping the pivot to Asia. But if it’s a Trump presidency, all bets are off” on a number of major issues, including trade, he said.
There has been mixed reaction to the president’s visit. Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said Obama made a mistake ending the ban on weapon sales before Vietnam showed real progress on human rights.
But a banned Vietnamese pro-democracy party said the president offered a “forward looking vision” and “forceful argument for a free Vietnam.”
I’m Bruce Alpert.
Words in This Story
adversary – n. an enemy
navigation – n. the act of moving in a boat or ship over an area of water
assure – v. to make something certain
detain – v. to officially prevent someone from leaving a place
assembly – n. to meet together with other people
milestone – n. an important point in the progress or development of something
tinderbox – n. a situation that suddenly can turn violent
pivot – v. the action of turning around a point
vision – n. a clear idea about what should happen or be done in the future