HANOI: US President Barack Obama told communist Vietnam on Tuesday that basic human rights would not jeopardize its stability, in an impassioned appeal for the one-party state to abandon authoritarianism.
In a sweeping speech, which harked back to the bloody war that defined both nations and also looked to the future, Obama said that “upholding rights is not a threat to stability.”
Vietnam ruthlessly cracks down on protests, jails dissidents, bans trade unions and controls local media.
But the US leader said bolstering rights “actually reinforces stability and is the foundation of progress,” in a speech to a packed auditorium including Communist Party officials in Hanoi.
The visit is Obama’s first to the country—and the third by a sitting president since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Direct US involvement in the conflict ended in 1973.
Obama’s trip has formally reset the relationship between the two former wartime foes with a lifting of a US arms embargo and deepened trade ties. But he has been cautious to avoid hectoring his hosts on rights.
“Vietnam will do it differently to the United States,” Obama said.
“But these are basic principles that we all have to try to work on and improve,” he added, referring in particular to the importance of a free media.
His speech, punctuated with humorous asides and references to Vietnamese culture and history, was greeted with warm applause in the cavernous National Convention center.
Earlier Obama met civil society leaders, including some of the country’s long-harassed critics.
But in a country where state control remains the reflex response, authorities stopped some activists from meeting him.
Trade and security
The Obama administration has trailed the visit as a chance to cement ties with Vietnam, a fast-growing country with a young population seen as a vital plank in America’s much-vaunted pivot to the Asia-Pacific.
Crowds have enthusiastically welcomed the US leader wherever he has gone, including late Monday at a street side restaurant where he supped beer and a local noodle soup specialty.
The US President alluded to the lingering shadow of the war, recognizing the enduring “ache” for the families of the millions of Vietnamese and almost 60,000 Americans who died.
But looking forward, he said the new relationship built on economic, educational and security bonds showed how nations can reshape their histories and “advance together”.
Trade has dominated the trip, with multi-billion-dollar deals unveiled, as well as further endorsement by both sides of the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Vietnam has embraced the deal, echoing Obama’s insistence that the pact can reshape global trade by slashing tariffs despite visceral opposition among many in Washington.
On Monday Obama also announced he was scrapping a Cold War-era ban on weapons sales to Vietnam, with the two countries sharing fears over Chinese expansionism in the disputed South China Sea.
Chinese state media on Tuesday slammed the move, saying it was aimed at Beijing and calling Obama’s assurances to the contrary “a very poor lie.”
Obama vowed American support to keep sea routes open for all.
“Big nations should not bully smaller ones, disputes should be resolved peacefully,” he said to warm applause from delegates in a country where anti-China sentiment is growing.
China claims almost all the South China Sea and has rattled neighbors with a series of reclamation and construction projects—including airstrips—on reefs and islets.
Vietnam and four other countries also have claims to parts of the sea.
The United States takes no position on the competing territorial claims but asserts freedom of navigation and flights in the sea and has sent warships near Chinese-held islets.
Obama said the US would help Hanoi with military equipment to help boost the capacity of its coastguard and “enhance maritime capabilities”