Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; 11:44 AM
HANOI — The Obama administration is ready to move to the “next level” of close relations with Vietnam despite concerns and “profound differences” over human rights, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a visit to Hanoi on Thursday.
The administration sees Vietnam “as not only important on its own merits, but as part of a strategy aimed at enhancing American engagement in the Asia Pacific, and in particular Southeast Asia,” Clinton said after a meeting with Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem.
On the last stop of a week-long trip that also took her to Pakistan, Afghanistan and South Korea, Clinton is in Vietnam to attend a regional security conference and to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations under then-President Bill Clinton a quarter-century after the end of the Vietnam War.
“For me personally and for my husband . . . this anniversary is especially poignant,” she said at a lunch given by the local American Chamber of Commerce. The two visited Vietnam, along with their daughter, Chelsea, in late 2000 on the last foreign trip of his presidency.
“Frankly, we weren’t sure exactly what to expect,” Clinton said, but she added that the warm reception they received had a “profound impact.”
During her meeting with Khiem, he gave her a white tablecloth for Chelsea, who is getting married July 31. He also presented Clinton with a gem-studded portrait of her and her daughter, laughing and wearing Vietnamese conical hats, copied from a photograph taken during the 2000 visit.
Clinton acknowledged to the Chamber that she was “trying to organize my daughter’s wedding” in the midst of frenetic official travel, “proving to all of you that I may be totally lacking in common sense.”
At a joint news conference, Clinton said she had raised the subject of human rights with the Vietnamese, including the jailing of dissidents and Internet restrictions. In his comments, Khiem responded that President Obama had said that “human rights values should not be imposed from the outside,” an apparent reference to a speech last year on China, when Obama said the United States would always stand for human and political freedoms, but that “these are not things that we seek to impose.”
Clinton raised the subject again at the Chamber lunch, saying that “the United States will continue to urge Vietnam to strengthen its commitment to human rights and give its people an even greater say over the direction of their own lives.”
Those allusions were the only critical note in exchanges that overwhelmingly emphasized the positive, including a growing U.S.-Vietnamese trade relationship and expanding U.S. investment here. “This is not a relationship that is fixed upon our differences,” Clinton said. Referring to the Vietnam War, she praised the ability of both countries to “accept the past, move beyond it and join together to build.”
Clinton said the United States would do more to help Vietnam overcome the effects of Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the United States during the war that is associated with certain cancers and birth defects.
“We have been working with Vietnam for about nine years to try to remedy the effects of Agent Orange,” she said.
The two governments also signed an agreement to continue working together to combat HIV/AIDS in Vietnam. U.S.-funded AIDS programs constitute the largest public health program in this country.
On Friday, Clinton will attend a regional security forum here of Southeast Asian nations. The Obama administration has said it would like the group to join it in expressing concern about North Korea and Burma.