HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — American concerns over the arrests of dissidents and other human rights abuses in Vietnam shouldn't stand in the way of closer military and economic ties with the Southeast Asian nation, the country's president said Tuesday ahead of talks in Washington with President Barack Obama.
President Truong Tan Sang's remarks, made in emailed responses to questions by The Associated Press, are a sign of Vietnam's desire to strengthen relations with the United States, a country with which it shares concerns over Chinese assertiveness in the region.
Sang's trip to the United States is only the second such visit by a head of state since the former foes resumed relations in 1995. He will meet President Obama on Thursday.
The United States is also seeking closer ties with Vietnam, part of its strategic "rebalancing" toward Asia, which is emerging as a vital partner for the sluggish economies of the West. But it wants to see the communist country release dissidents. Some officials have said progress on a closer relationship was contingent on an improved human rights record.
On human rights, Sang said that in Vietnam "the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people are respected."
Asked about American concerns about the arrests of bloggers, he said: "There are a number of differences between Vietnam and the United States including those on human rights, but this is quite normal."
"It is my hope that after five years of no exchanges of high-level visits between the two countries, my official visit to the United States this time will contribute to elevating Vietnam-US relations into a profound, efficient and substantive framework," he said.
The invitation by Obama for talks at the White House took some analysts by surprise, who suggested that Washington's desire to shift its military and diplomatic focus to Asia had trumped its stated concerns over human rights in Vietnam.
"It looks like the human rights issue is being finessed. Behind closed doors Obama can raise the concerns, but it's obviously not going to feature prominently," said Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam at the University of New South Wales in Australia. "For Obama, it is 'how do you get more jobs for Americans.' You sell more in Asia, that's the larger gain."
Both sides are expected to discuss a trade pact that Washington is negotiating with Vietnam and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations, which the Obama administration wants signed by the end of the year. Two-way trade between the U.S. and Vietnam totaled $26 billion last year. Vietnam's leaders, presiding over a stuttering economy, are also under pressure to deliver stronger economic growth.
The U.S. has been forging closer military links with Vietnam in recent years, with port calls and officer exchanges, but has yet to lift an embargo on lethal weapons imposed since 1984. U.S. officials have said they were considering lifting it, but there is no sign of this happening soon. Thayer said Vietnam was unlikely to purchase weapons from the United States, preferring Eastern European sellers, but that the ban was seen as discriminatory by some in the ruling party.
Asked whether he wanted it lifted, Sang said "I believe it is now the time for our bilateral relations to be fully normalized in all fields in the interests of the two countries, and for peace, cooperation and development in the Asia-Pacific region."
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, questioned why Sang would get a White House visit given Vietnam's record.
"Why would this happen at this time, when there has been such a concerned crackdown on freedom of expression," he said. "Now the onus is on President Barack Obama to make sure that human rights doesn't slip from the agenda. The United States has to publicly state its concerns and press the government of Vietnam to make real steps."