U.S., Vietnam work toward trade agreement

U.S., Vietnam work toward trade agreement

President Barack Obama said Thursday that he and Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang will work toward completion of a trade agreement by year’s end as well as more trade, commerce and transparency in commercial relations in Asia. But another topic, human rights abuses in Vietnam, was left unsettled.

Obama said after the meeting, “We had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain.” Sang said, “We still have differences on the issue.”

Sang informed Obama of Vietnam’s “efforts and achievements in promoting human rights” for religious believers, according to a White House statement.

Those differences were underscored by shouts from hundreds of protesters in Lafayette Park near the White House, who called on Obama to protect human rights before pursuing trade agreements. One sign said: “Free All Prisoners of Conscience Now.” The protesters could not be heard inside.

Obama said Sang’s visit, the first official exchange between the two leaders, represents a maturing and next stage of development between the United States and Vietnam. Sang invited Obama to Vietnam, to which the president responded that he will “try his best” to visit during his term. Sang’s trip marks only the third presidential visit between the two countries since 1995.

Sang had a message for Vietnamese Americans: “We would like to see you contributing more and more to the friendship between our two countries as well as further development of our relationship in the future.”

At stake for both leaders and a top priority for Obama was the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement still in the works among 12 Pacific Rim countries — Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam — meant to make trading goods among the partners more streamlined and accessible.

Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations have been ongoing since January, with the 18th meeting among the countries just ended Wednesday in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. The Pacific Rim nations account for nearly 40 percent of global GDP and about one-third of all world trade, according to the U.S. trade representative.

But some groups want to see advances in human rights in Vietnam before the country is included in a lucrative trade pact. John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said Obama should suspend or threaten to suspend all Trans-Pacific trade negotiations with Vietnam until conditions improve for factory workers and citizens.

“Ultimately, the question isn’t whether human-rights issues are going to be raised, the real question is whether the Obama administration is willing to consider punitive measures against Vietnam for its deteriorating rights environment overall,” Sifton said in a telephone conference call with reporters this week. Human Rights Watch reported that more people were convicted of political offenses in the first five months of 2013 — more than 50 — than in all of last year.

Three members of Orange County’s congressional delegation earlier this week urged Obama to pressure Sang to address and resolve human rights grievances, and California Sen. Barbara Boxer was one of five senators who signed a letter to Obama that said, in part: “Abuses include severe government restrictions on political rights; arbitrary arrests and detentions; increasingly limited freedoms of speech and press; attacks on websites critical of the government; and spying on dissident bloggers.”

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Santa Ana, reacted to the morning’s meeting: “While I am pleased to hear that the two presidents discussed human rights issues in Vietnam, I’m disappointed that President Obama did not address specific cases like … blogger Dieu Cay or human rights attorney Le Quoc Quan.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership “must be met with human rights benchmarks,” she said in a statement.

–The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact the writer: dhood@ocregister.com.