Obama and Vietnam’s Leader Pledge Deeper Ties
By MARK LANDLER
July 25, 2013
WASHINGTON — Bearing a copy of a letter from Ho Chi Minh to Harry S. Truman, the president of Vietnam met President Obama on Thursday and pledged to deepen trade and military ties with the United States even as they tangled over human rights.
It was the first visit of a Vietnamese leader to the White House during the Obama administration, and it took on an even greater strategic resonance, given Mr. Obama’s determination to increase the United States’ presence in Asia.
But the visit of Vietnam’s president, Truong Tan Sang, follows a difficult period in which Vietnam’s Communist government has cracked down at home, imprisoning bloggers, religious leaders and dissidents; curtailing labor laws; and again taking control of what one Vietnam expert called the “commanding heights” of the economy.
Mr. Obama referred gently to the abuses, saying: “All of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly. And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain.”
President Obama and President Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam at the end of their Oval Office meeting on Thursday.
CHARLES DHARAPAK / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Mr. Sang, sitting next to him in the Oval Office, mentioned the legacy of the Vietnam War and said that “we still have differences” concerning his country’s human rights record.
Human rights advocates and union leaders complained that given Vietnam’s deteriorating record, Mr. Sang should not have been rewarded with an Oval Office visit, especially one lasting an hour and 15 minutes and causing Mr. Obama to delay his departure for Jacksonville, Fla., where he spoke about his economic agenda at the city’s seaport.
“The administration hoped that opening trade negotiations and a military dialogue would be an incentive for Vietnam to change, to soften its authoritarian edge,” said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s clear that hope was misplaced. They should ask themselves: Why are they sticking with a strategy that hasn’t worked?”
Labor leaders, including James P. Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters union, urged Mr. Obama to suspend negotiations over a regional free trade agreement until Vietnam promised to improve its treatment of workers. And a group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers called on the president to press Vietnam harder on human rights.
Displaying photographs of religious leaders who had been beaten by the Vietnamese authorities, Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday, “In Vietnam, the government continues to round up anyone who continues to speak the word ‘democracy’ or speak the words ‘human rights.’ ”
Administration officials said, however, that it made more sense for Mr. Obama to raise the issue of human rights, which they said he did privately and during his comments after the meeting, than to spurn the leader of a country that is central to his policy of re-engaging in Asia.
The administration used a similar argument to justify Mr. Obama’s invitation in May to the president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, for a White House visit. Although there is evidence of backsliding on democratic reforms by Myanmar’s leaders since the United States normalized relations last year, officials said Mr. Obama prodded the president to do more.
“For the Vietnamese, the idea of their president going to the White House and seeing President Obama is a huge thing,” said Thomas J. Vallely, the former director of the Vietnam program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. “Obama has influence in how Vietnam is going to rethink how it’s going to be a modern country.”
The administration’s engagement with Vietnam has been amplified by Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who has traveled there repeatedly since the war. On Wednesday, Mr. Kerry was the host of a luncheon for Mr. Sang at the State Department, during which he pointed out that Mr. Sang was a guerrilla leader south of Saigon in 1969, the same time Mr. Kerry was a Navy officer in the Mekong Delta.
For the administration, the looming shadow in all this is China, whose tentacles reach throughout Asia. The White House, seeking to reassert an American role, is negotiating a regional free trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, with Vietnam and eight other nations, though not China.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Sang both pledged to complete the pact by the end of this year, a goal that some trade experts say is ambitious given that Japan has just joined the group.
The United States has also waded into increasingly bitter disagreements involving China, Vietnam and others over disputed islands in the South China Sea. The administration has insisted that Beijing and its neighbors resolve their competing claims under international law.
On Thursday, Mr. Sang thanked Mr. Obama for “the U.S. support for our stance in this matter.”
Mr. Obama’s embrace of the Vietnamese leader was important, administration officials said, given the hours the American leader lavished on China’s president, Xi Jinping, at an informal summit meeting last month in California. While China remains the fulcrum of America’s engagement in Asia, the White House is determined to build relationships elsewhere in the region.
Despite the formality of the Oval Office setting, there were unscripted moments. When the official interpreter said Mr. Obama had accepted Mr. Sang’s invitation to visit Vietnam, Mr. Sang corrected him, saying Mr. Obama had pledged to “try his best” to get there.
And as reporters shouted questions during a picture-taking session, Mr. Obama was overheard telling Mr. Sang that “reporters are the same everywhere,” according to a pool reporter in the Oval Office.
Before the two parted, Mr. Obama referred to the letter that Mr. Sang had shown him. In it, the president said, Ho Chi Minh expressed his hope to President Truman that Vietnam could cooperate with the United States.
“President Sang indicated that even if it’s 67 years later, it’s good that we’re still making progress,” Mr. Obama said.