By Arshad Mohammed
HANOI (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Vietnam's human rights record on Tuesday, especially its restriction of free speech online, and her aides said there were limits to better ties until it improved.
During a brief visit to Vietnam, a one-party state that is dominated by the Communist Party, Clinton also rejected the idea that economic growth should be given priority over democratic freedoms, arguing that the two "go hand in hand".
U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said the United States, which provides its former adversary nonlethal military equipment, would not consider selling lethal equipment unless the country's human rights record improved considerably.
The sea change in relations between the two countries since the Vietnam War's is reflected in their economic ties - with trade reaching $22 billion last year, officials said.
It has also been driven, to some degree, in recent years by the Vietnamese perception that the United States can act as a counterweight to Chinese influence in the region, notably in disputes over the South China sea.
"If Vietnam is going to continue developing and transition to an innovative, entrepreneurial economy ... there will have to be more space created for the free exchange of ideas, to strengthen the rule of law and respect the universal rights of all workers, including the right to unionize," Clinton said.
At a news conference with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Clinton said that in their talks she had "raised concerns about human rights, including the continued detention of activists, lawyers and bloggers for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas.
"In particular, we are concerned about restrictions on free expression online and the upcoming trial of the founders of the so-called Free Journalists Club," she said.
According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam has detained the club's founding members - three of the country's most prominent bloggers and activists - for almost a year without trial for using the Internet to exercise their rights.
The rights group identified the three as Nguyen Van Hai, Phan Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan.
"There are some who argue that developing economies need to put economic growth first and worry about political reform and democracy later. But that is a short-sighted bargain," she said. "Political reform and economic growth are linked."
In addition to meeting Vietnam's prime minister, Nguyen Tan Dung, Clinton also requested, and obtained, a meeting with the general secretary of the Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong.
A senior U.S. official told reporters that Clinton wanted to see Trong in part because resistance to political freedoms and to closer ties with the United States was strongest within the party, Vietnam's military and its state security apparatus.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Trong appeared discomfited by Clinton's detailed presentation of U.S. human rights concerns, which included citing specific cases that Washington has raised for years.
"He was uncomfortable in the session," the official said, saying he believed "more and more of the people on the senior side ... are coming around a little bit to a recognition that this (improving human rights) is going to be necessary for them".
(Additional reporting by Ho Bin Minh; Editing by Alison Williams)