(CNSNews.com) – A day after a Republican lawmaker urged the administration to fire the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam for “sidelining” human rights concerns, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Hanoi, singled out the envoy for praise.
Clinton also prodded the communist government on human rights, telling reporters after a meeting with her Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Binh Minh, that she had “raised concerns about human rights, including the continued detention of activists, lawyers, and bloggers, for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas.”
On Monday, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), in a letter to President Obama and Clinton, called for the removal of Ambassador David Shear, saying he had failed to speak our for human rights, and in particular accusing him of breaching pledges to invite prominent human rights and democracy activists to an Independence Day event hosted by the embassy last week.
During a joint press availability with Minh at a government guest house on Tuesday, Clinton was not asked about human rights or about the Wolf letter. (U.S. reporters’ questions were limited to the Middle East while Vietnamese reporters asked about Agent Orange and Vietnam War MIA recoveries.)
But addressing an American Chamber of Commerce reception at a Hanoi hotel later, Clinton took the opportunity to “recognize our excellent Ambassador David Shear, who has a great team working on behalf of American interests and American businesses.”
Promoting U.S. business in the region is a key part of Clinton’s agenda during the trip, which will include what has been characterized as the biggest ever forum of U.S. and southeast Asian businesses, at Siem Reap, Cambodia on Friday.
The U.S.-Vietnam trade partnership has expanded more than 40 percent in the last three years, and Clinton noted that the U.S. is now Vietnam’s seventh-largest foreign investor and its biggest market for exports.
The commercial push is an important aspect of what the administration calls its “pivot to Asia,” a shift some policymakers and rights advocates worry may entail a downplaying of human rights issues.
Three of the countries on Clinton’s itinerary this week – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – are ranked “not free” by the U.S. democracy watchdog, Freedom House, yet she chose to deliver a keynote speech Monday on human rights and democracy in Mongolia, a country with a “free” Freedom House grade.
In his letter to Obama, Wolf broadened his criticism from the ambassador to the administration.
“Sadly, his sidelining of serious human rights issues in Vietnam is symptomatic of this administration’s overall approach to human rights and religious freedom,” he wrote. “Time and again these issues are put on the back-burner – to the detriment of freedom-loving people the world over.”
In her appearance with Minh, Clinton confronted the issue towards the end of a prepared statement.
“I know there are some who argue that developing economies need to put economic growth first and worry about political reform and democracy later, but that is a short-sided bargain,” she said. “Democracy and prosperity go hand in hand, political reform and economic growth are linked, and the United States wants to support progress in both areas.
“So I also raised concerns about human rights, including the continued detention of activists, lawyers, and bloggers, for the peaceful expression of opinions and ideas. In particular, we are concerned about restrictions on free expression online and the upcoming trial of the founders of the so-called Free Journalists Club,” Clinton continued. “The foreign minister and I agreed to keep talking candidly and to keep expanding our partnership.”
‘A pretty cool place’
During her visit, Clinton had warm words for Vietnam, and described Hanoi as “a pretty cool place.”
Addressing an event at Hanoi’s Foreign Trade University, she recalled that her husband had visited the institution in 2010, and added, “The Clintons and Vietnam have a very close relationship that I hope continues for many, many years into the future.”
President Clinton oversaw the normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995 and five years later became the first American president to visit since the end of the Vietnam War.
Ties continued to improve under the Bush administration, which in late 2006 awarded Hanoi permanent normal trade relations, paving the way for it to join the World Trade Organization the following year.
The Bush administration that year also removed Vietnam from the list of “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom violations, a step the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called premature and has been urging be reversed ever since.
The deepening of relations sped up under the Obama administration, which among other things has welcomed Vietnam into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious proposed trade agreement. Vietnam is one of the TPP’s 11 current members or negotiating partners, and apart from tiny Brunei is the only one that is not a democracy.
“We are very committed to this relationship between the United States and Vietnam, just as we are to the reenergizing of America’s relationship throughout the Asia Pacific,” Clinton said on Tuesday. “It’s one of the top priorities of the Obama administration.”
Wolf, who is co-chairman of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, has long championed human rights and especially support for religious freedom in U.S. foreign policy. Roman Catholics, Protestants and Buddhists have faced restrictions and harassment in Vietnam.
In his letter to Obama, Wolf said the U.S. should appoint as ambassador to Hanoi a Vietnamese-American, “someone who understands the country, the language, and the oppressive nature of the government having experienced it themselves before coming to the U.S.
“Such an individual would not be tempted to maintain smooth bilateral relations at all costs.”