- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2013

President Obama said he had a “very candid conversation” on human rights Thursday with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang at the White House, and the leader of the Southeast Asian nation said the two “still have differences on the issue.”

“We discussed the challenges that all of us face when it comes to issues of human rights, and we emphasized how the United States continues to believe that all of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly,” Mr. Obama said. “And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain.”

Meanwhile, the State Department hosted a meeting with members of Mr. Sang’s delegation to discuss concerns over religious freedom in Vietnam.

“The frank discussion addressed concerns about Vietnam’s system of religious registration, including reports of arrest, detention, and coercion of members of unregistered religious groups,” State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said.

Human rights groups and members of Congress had urged Mr. Obama to press Mr. Sang on human rights violations taking place in Vietnam, including a crackdown on dissidents, bloggers and religious leaders.

Still, Mr. Obama’s meeting with Mr. Sang was dominated by trade. The Obama administration is negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership with Vietnam and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations, and hopes to have an agreement by the end of the year. It would be the largest free-trade agreement ever.

Speaking alongside Mr. Sang at the White House, Mr. Obama said his administration is committed “to the ambitious goal of completing this agreement before the end of the year because we know that this can create jobs and increase investment across the region and in both our countries.”

On Thursday evening, Mr. Sang told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that his government also is committed to bringing the partnership to a conclusion by the end of this year.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Sang decided to form a “U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership” that would provide an overarching framework for advancing the relationship, the two sides said in a joint statement.

A stronger relationship with Vietnam is part of the Obama administration’s effort to rebalance its relationship with the Asia Pacific. The “Asia pivot” is seen by some analysts as an attempt to contain China, which is also Vietnam’s largest trading partner.

Mr. Sang sought to distance Vietnam and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from any containment effort, saying that the organization “shall not be a tool for confrontation, containment or division as this will benefit no country.”

Responding to a question about the U.S.’ Asia pivot, Mr. Sang said, “This policy proceeds from the interests of the United States. … We hope that this policy will help contribute to ensuring peace, stability, cooperation and development, and continue to promote dynamism in the Asia Pacific.”

“We hope that this will help bring benefits to the United States and all countries in the region,” he added.

In their meeting, Mr. Obama and Mr. Sang discussed a need for efforts to peacefully resolve maritime issues in the South China Sea, where China has been asserting its dominance.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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