Updated at 6.40 p.m. ET on 2013-7-25
Vietnam and the United States accept that they have "differences" on human rights, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang said Thursday after President Barack Obama pressed him on the prickly issue during their White House talks.
Following pressure from lawmakers, nongovernmental organizations, and the Vietnamese-American community to put human rights at the front and center of the summit talks, Obama said he spoke to his visitor during their meeting about the need to respect freedom of speech and other basic democratic values.
"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," Obama told reporters with Sang by his side after the Oval Office meeting.
"And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain," the U.S. leader said, without being specific about particular rights issues.
Sang, only the second Vietnamese head of state to visit the White House since the former foes resumed relations nearly two decades ago, was even more brief than Obama in commenting on the human rights issue after the meeting, which lasted for more than an hour and longer than expected.
He said that they touched on the human rights topic and "we still have differences on the issue."
"We accept that there are differences," Sang said separately, in a speech at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "The most viable way is to continue our dialogue in a frank manner so as to enhance understanding and to narrow differences," he said.
In line with this spirit, he said, he exchanged views with American lawmakers "in an open and friendly manner" on human rights and religious freedom issues during his visit.
Sang's arrival at the White House was met with protests by hundreds of slogan-chanting Vietnamese-Americans across the street calling on Obama to protect human rights in Vietnam.
Before the talks with Obama, Sang had said that concerns over human rights abuses in Vietnam should not dampen closer U.S. military and economic ties with the Southeast Asian nation.
Vietnam's human rights have been eroding rapidly with almost 50 rights defenders jailed this year alone and with the government cracking down on freedoms of expression, assembly and association, according to the families of 35 key political prisoners who asked Obama in a letter this week to "stand up for the people of Vietnam."
The families included those of rights activist and popular blogger Nguyen Van Hai, known by his pen name Dieu Cay, who is on a month-long hunger strike to protest the actions of prison officials who tried to force him to make a false confession.
Vietnamese dissidents are often held incommunicado for lengthy periods, without access to counsel or family visits, often subjected to torture or other mistreatment, and prosecuted in politically controlled courts, which are increasingly handing out lengthy sentences, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said.
U.S. lawmakers and rights activists were concerned that the Obama administration might leave human rights on the sidelines in its efforts to forge closer ties with Vietnam on trade and military cooperation as China flexes its muscle while pressing Beijing's territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.
In fact, based on the remarks of the two leaders after the meeting, it appeared that rights was not a top priority issue.
On the topics discussed Thursday, Obama in his remarks started with a trade pact which Washington has been negotiating with Vietnam and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations.
"We're 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," the U.S. leader said of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.
Obama then touched on the South China Sea issue, saying Washington appreciated "Vietnam’s commitment to working with ASEAN and the East Asia Summit in order for us to arrive at Codes of Conduct that will help to resolve these issues peacefully and fairly."
Vietnam and the other Southeast Asian nations have been trying for about a decade to have a code of conduct with China on how to resolve rival territorial claims in the South China Sea but to no avail.
Obama then touched briefly on human rights before moving on to Vietnam's continued cooperation in efforts to recover American soldiers missing in action and those that were lost during the course of the Vietnam War and Washington's commitment to work with Vietnam on post-war environmental and health issues, as well as the need to develop people-to-people ties.
In his remarks at the White House, Sang had human rights nearly at the end of the long list of topics they discussed.
"We discussed various matters, including political relations, science and technology, education, defense, the legacy of the war issue, environment, the Vietnamese-American community, human rights as well—and the East Sea [South China Sea] as well," he said.
Sang had said during talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday that his country made "every effort to ensure the right of freedom of religion and belief."
Sang brought along a group of Vietnamese "religious dignitaries," including three handpicked Buddhist monks and Christian Protestants, to Washington to hold talks with their American counterparts on religious-related issues.
But U.S. participants said most of the questions at the meeting were about Vietnam's religious restrictions and abuses and controversial government policies and they were answered by the head of Vietnam's religious affairs panel in the Interior Ministry.
Scott Flipse, Deputy Director of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said that Sang's visit is a "big test" of the Obama Administration’s 'Asia Pivot' strategy, which is seen as a U.S. bid to clip China's growing military and economic influence in the region, prompting Chinese anxiety about U.S. containment.
"Will human rights be a priority moving forward, and will Secretary Kerry make better human rights a condition for better relations,” asked Flipse.
"Vietnam wants more from the U.S. than the U.S. can get from Vietnam, the Administration clearly has the leverage to bring about real changes in Vietnam, but only if it conditions new trade benefits [such as TPP membership] and security cooperation [balancing China claim on Vietnam’s offshore islands] on concrete human rights improvements," he said.
He said it was clear from Sang’s comments that Vietnam believes that human right and religious freedom are impediments to better relations.
"The Administration made human rights a priority in its engagement with Burma [Myanmar], it should do so again with Vietnam. Ironically, with Burma’s openness to reform, Vietnam now has the worst record in Southeast Asia.”