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Vietnam's Premier Gets VIP Treatment

Bush avoids tough issues. His conciliatory stance toward the Communist nation disappoints some community leaders in Orange County.

June 22, 2005|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Welcoming a Vietnamese prime minister to the White House for the first time since the end of the war, President Bush on Tuesday hailed the two nations' growing economic and security ties but stepped gingerly around the divisive issue of human rights.

Although religious conservatives, Vietnamese Americans and others have been urging the White House to push Hanoi for human rights reform, Bush said nothing critical in his appearance with Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai.

Instead, he praised as a "landmark" a recent bilateral agreement aimed at increasing religious liberty in the Southeast Asian country. He also announced that he would visit Vietnam next year, pairing meetings with Vietnamese leaders with participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation gathering to be held in Vietnam. Bush will become the second U.S. president to visit since the Vietnam War ended in 1975; Bill Clinton traveled there in 2000.

Bush and Khai issued a joint statement pledging that the two countries would have an "open and candid dialogue on issues of common concern, including human rights practices and conditions for religious believers and ethnic minorities." It said Bush "welcomed Vietnam's efforts to date and encouraged further progress."

Bush's conciliatory tone was striking, especially at a time when the administration is taking a hard line on the human rights practices of some Middle Eastern governments, among others. Analysts said the softer approach reflected, in part, the administration's desire to forge security and economic ties with Hanoi amid increasing concern about China's growing power.

"It's interesting that the administration is willing to take this really very gentle approach," said Fred Brown, a longtime analyst of Southeast Asia at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "This isn't going to win him any points with religious conservatives."

Brown added that it was noteworthy that the joint statement said the relationship between the two counties would be a partnership of "equality" and "mutual respect." That tone could make it easier to convince Vietnamese hard-liners still leery of ties with the U.S. that a relationship with Washington could be beneficial, he said.

Bush's plans to visit Vietnam next year, plus his decision to support Hanoi's bid to join the World Trade Organization, triggered some shock and disappointment in Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese community in the United States.

Bush's visit "gives Mr. Khai and his Communist government the recognition they don't deserve," said Dung Tran, South ern California's representative to the Vietnam Reform Party, a worldwide organization dedicated to bringing democracy to Vietnam.

"Bush is advocating for freedom for Iraq," he said, "but the Vietnamese people are also fighting for their own freedom. I feel Bush should listen a little bit more and a little bit closer."

Yet others called Bush's planned visit an opportunity to press for reform.

"It's a door to move forward in terms of having the world leader see what's going on over there," Garden Grove Councilwoman Janet Nguyen said.

Since the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations in 1995, two-way trade has grown twentyfold, to $6.4 billion. Meanwhile, the two countries are moving to increase security ties through military-to-military contacts and intelligence cooperation.

In the Tuesday joint statement, Bush and Khai pledged that their nations would work together in the "global fight on terrorism," as well as other international issues, such as crime and communicable diseases.

The statement also noted that Vietnam had agreed to expand its effort to find Americans missing in action during the Vietnam War -- a joint project that has been key to the countries' relationship in the last 10 years.

Yet human rights issues continue to be a sticking point. U.S. officials regularly voice unease about a lack of political and religious freedom in Vietnam, and last year, the State Department included the Communist state on its list of "countries of particular concern."

The State Department report noted that Vietnam had barred the operation of unregistered religious organizations, and that participants in such groups faced harassment as well as possible detention and imprisonment. The report also said the government "significantly restricted freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association" and "continued to deny citizens the right to change their government."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that in their private meeting, Bush and Khai had discussed "the importance of continuing to move forward on improving human rights and expanding religious freedom."

"One of the points he made to the prime minister was that, as you continue to move forward on improving human rights and expanding religious freedom, you will only realize better relations with the United States and with the international community," McClellan said.

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