HANOI (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern Thursday over Vietnam’s arrests of dissidents, attacks on religious groups and curbs on Internet freedom, but said the countries remained friends.
The United States and Communist-run Vietnam marked 15 years of diplomatic ties this month and Clinton said the two countries had “learned to see each other not as former enemies but as actual and potential partners, colleagues and friends.”
The relationship has blossomed in recent years. Trade between the former enemies has risen in value more than eightfold under a trade pact that went into force in 2001. It totaled nearly $16 billion last year.
The United States was Vietnam’s biggest source of new foreign investment last year.
“We have consistently moved in the direction of engagement and cooperation, even on those issues where we disagree,” Clinton said during a two-day visit to Hanoi for the Asia-Pacific region’s biggest security dialogue.
She said Vietnam was on the path to becoming “a great nation with unlimited potential.”
“That is the reason we express concern about arrest and conviction of people for peaceful dissent, attacks on religious groups and curbs on Internet freedoms,” she told reporters.
Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem rebutted by saying each country interpreted human rights differently according to its cultural background.
“President Obama said there is no perfect way and each country should select their own way depending on the circumstances of the nation, and the human rights values shouldn’t be imposed from the outside,” he told a news conference alongside Clinton.
Vietnam’s one-party state has come under fire from rights groups and Western governments for arrests and detentions of advocates of greater political freedom or discussion of politically sensitive topics.
The government has also blocked certain websites, including Facebook, and has curbs on religious freedom.
Clinton said the United States supported Vietnam’s participation in the TranspAcific Partnership, a proposed trade pact spanning eight countries in the Pacific Ocean that Washington wants completed by November 2011.
She also pledged to work with Hanoi on a lingering source of friction -- the legacy of Agent Orange, a dioxin-laced defoliant sprayed by U.S. troops in the 1965-75 Vietnam War to destroy crops and jungle cover shielding guerrillas.
U.S. government-supported projects have started work on land where U.S. troops stored the defoliant, which critics have linked to cancers, birth defects and other ailments.
Writing by John Ruwitch; Editing by Jason Szep and Ron Popeski