President Barack Obama and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang met as their nations intensify trade talks opposed by U.S. labor leaders and human rights advocates who say the Southeast Asian nation must do more to protect workers and political dissidents.
While the U.S. and Vietnam are among a dozen working toward an agreement by year-end on a free-trade accord to link an area with about $26 trillion in annual economic output, the agenda for Obama and Sang included human rights, climate change and working with other countries to put pressure on China, protect maritime security and ease South China Sea disputes.
“We had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain” on human rights, Obama said as the two concluded their meeting in the Oval Office. Sang said the two countries “still have differences” on human rights.
A coalition that includes the Teamsters union and Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, called yesterday for a suspension of the talks until Vietnam can show sufficient improvement in worker protections, the environment and individual rights.
“President Obama must hold Vietnam accountable for its record on worker and human rights before America rewards the country with greater trading privileges,” Teamsters President Jim Hoffa said in a statement.
U.S. Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has pressed Obama to use Sang’s White House visit to urge Vietnam’s government to take specific steps. These include halting hacker attacks on bloggers, easing blocks on social media access and ending the detention of religious and political dissidents.
“Over 50 Vietnamese human-rights advocates have been held in arbitrary detention this year alone,” Royce said in a July 18 letter to Obama, calling it a troubling statistic that reflects the “intolerable state of human rights in Vietnam.”
“This further backslide in the Vietnamese government’s respect for human rights comes as the country is increasing its international engagement,” Royce said. “If our two countries are to build a strong relationship, Vietnam must honor its citizens’ basic rights, including freedom of association and assembly, freedom of opinion, and freedom of religion.”
The rights of people in Vietnam will be “an important part” of Obama’s discussions with Sang, said Jonathan Lalley, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council. “We’ve consistently expressed our concerns with respect to Vietnam’s human rights record.”
Sang acknowledged the tensions. “Vietnam has been making sustained efforts to protect and promote human rights so that the people can benefit,” he said at a lunch yesterday with Secretary of State John Kerry. Vietnam has “made every effort to ensure the right of freedom of religion,” Sang said.
Ernest Bower, president of Fairfax, Virginia-based Bower Group Asia, which advises businesses on operating in Southeast Asia, said while there are legitimate concerns about human rights, U.S. labor unions also are “threatened by the garment and textile industries” in Vietnam. Bower said in the long run, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal being negotiated is more likely to boost total U.S. manufacturing.
The Obama administration, Bower said, is seeking to balance human-rights concerns against signs of improvement and Vietnam’s role in the region.
“The U.S. government thinks the Vietnamese are among the most strategic-thinking of all the Southeast Asian countries,” said Bower, who also is a senior adviser on Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research organization in Washington.
Sang said he invited Obama to visit Vietnam and that U.S. president promised to “try his best” to make a trip.
The U.S. and Vietnam have a shared interest in strengthening the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and East Asia Summit forums to persuade China to “play by the rules of the neighborhood instead of coercing” smaller nearby nations, Bower said.
Vietnam’s government is planning a revamping of state enterprises by 2015, trying to revive an economy that expanded by 5.25 percent last year, the slowest annual rate since at least 2005.
Delaying structural reforms may curb investor confidence and expansion, the World Bank said this month in a report.
Economic growth slowed to a 4.9 percent annual rate in the 2013 second quarter, after one of the highest bad-debt levels in Southeast Asia crimped business credit. The International Monetary Fund has lowered its projection for the nation’s growth this year to 5.2 percent from 5.8 percent.