- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (AP) - When President Barack Obama met with human rights advocates and other activists Tuesday, he spoke of the “remarkable strides” Vietnam was making on a range of issues. Nguyen Quang A missed the meeting: That morning, the 70-year-old activist said, security men grabbed his arms and legs, threw him in a car and drove him into the countryside, where they held him until Obama left town.

The episode in Hanoi was a measure of both the progress and the unfinished business as the U.S. and Vietnam move from onetime enemies to full partners with stronger economic and security ties.

For all the lusty cheers and warm welcomes that Obama has gotten during his time in Vietnam, the transformation clearly is still very much a work in progress.

Three activists were prevented from attending Obama’s meeting with civic leaders, the White House acknowledged, and even administration protests lodged with the Vietnamese government couldn’t change that.

In his public remarks, though, Obama chose to focus on the positive and tread lightly on the setbacks.

“Vietnam has made remarkable strides in many ways - the economy is growing quickly, the Internet is booming and there’s a growing confidence here,” Obama told reporters after his meeting with the activists. But then he added: “There are still areas of significant concern in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, accountability with respect to government.”

Later, in a speech to more than 2,000 Vietnamese citizens, including students and government officials, Obama again took up the matter of human rights carefully, saying that “no nation is perfect” and listing the United States’ own shortcomings first. He ticked them off: “too much money in our politics, and rising economic inequality, racial bias in our criminal justice system, women still not being paid as much as men doing the same job.”

Only then did Obama address the Vietnamese government’s own need to do more to respect human rights. He made his argument on economic grounds:

“When there is freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and when people can share ideas and access the Internet and social media without restriction, that fuels the innovation economies need to thrive,” Obama said. “That’s where new ideas happen. That’s how a Facebook starts. “

A, one of the activists prevented from meeting with Obama, said the president’s human rights push was a difficult balancing act.

“I would welcome it if he had been a bit stronger,” A said of Obama. But then he added that human rights advocates are idealists, and politicians “have to consider so many other things.”

Other human rights advocates were less willing to cut Obama slack.

“Vietnam has demonstrated itself that it doesn’t deserve the closer ties the US is offering,” said John Sifton, Asia policy director for the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “It’s like Vietnam is putting on a demonstration for Obama of their repressive governance. One might even assume it’s some sort of a test.”

From Hanoi, Obama traveled to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, where he held out his own schedule as a metaphor for the country’s own transition toward economic powerhouse.

He went first to the century-old Jade Pagoda, one of Vietnam’s cultural treasures, then sped a few miles by motorcade to Dreamplex, a hip workplace for startups and entrepreneurs.

Obama said it was emblematic of Vietnam’s evolution as a country honoring its history but “boldly racing into the future.”

The president also traced the transformation of the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship from wartime enemies to cooperation. He said the governments are working more closely together than ever before on a range of issues.

“Now we can say something that was once unimaginable: Today, Vietnam and the Unites States are partners,” he said.

Obama referred in his speech to China’s growing aggression in the region, something that worries many in Vietnam, which has territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Beijing.

China, in turn, warned from afar against the U.S. and Vietnam using their warmer relations to put pressure on China and create a “tinderbox” that could lead to regional conflict.

Secretary of State John Kerry said it was China’s own actions in the South and East China Seas that could create a tinderbox.

“I would caution China to not unilaterally move to engage in reclamation activities and militarization of islands,” Kerry said.

That issue is sure to get further scrutiny on Obama’s next stop on his weeklong Asian trip. From Vietnam, he travels to a summit in Japan with leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations, where regional security matters will be high on the agenda.

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Associated Press writer Foster Klug contributed to this report.

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Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at https://twitter.com/nbenac

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