HANOI (Christian Examiner) – On his final visit to Asia, President Barack Obama praised Vietnam's economic progress and played up its shared security interests with the United States as China flexes its military muscle in the waters off Vietnam's coast.
Obama pledged during an address before an audience in Hanoi to provide additional equipment and training to the Southeast Asian nation's Coast Guard and lift the ban on weapons sales to further enhance security – both actions evidence of a fully normalized relationship between the two countries once locked in war for nearly three decades.
"In the South China Sea, the United States is not a claimant in current disputes. But we will stand with partners in upholding core principles, like freedom of navigation and overflight, and lawful commerce that is not impeded, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, through legal means, in accordance with international law," Obama said.
"As we go forward, the United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, and we will support the right of all countries to do the same."
But Obama said Vietnam, in spite of its rising middle incomes, increased educational opportunities and decline in infant mortality, still has progress to make. While Obama said "no nation is perfect" and rattled off his list of perceived problems in the U.S. – racism, income inequality, bias in the criminal justice system and big money in politics – he pointed to Vietnam's lagging record on human rights.
Unlike President Ronald Reagan or more recently George W. Bush, who both spoke of human rights and freedom abroad, President Obama also dislocated the discussion of rights from the accompanying American ideals ensconced in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. Instead, he pointed to the United Nations as the model for human rights.
"I've said this before – the United States does not seek to impose our form of government on Vietnam. The rights I speak of I believe are not American values; I think they're universal values written into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They're written into the Vietnamese constitution, which states that 'citizens have the right to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and have the right of access to information, the right to assembly, the right to association, and the right to demonstrate.' That's in the Vietnamese constitution. So really, this is an issue about all of us, each country, trying to consistently apply these principles, making sure that we -- those of us in government -- are being true to these ideals," Obama said.
In particular, Vietnam has the greatest distance to travel in the areas of free speech and religious liberty, the president said.
Obama said free speech "fuels the innovation economies need to thrive" and helps create new ideas. He also said it allows candidates to run for office on open platforms, which in turn gives the people a voice in governance.
Religious liberty and the right to associate freely, he said, are also important.
"When there is freedom of religion, it not only allows people to fully express the love and compassion that are at the heart of all great religions, but it allows faith groups to serve their communities through schools and hospitals, and care for the poor and the vulnerable," Obama said. "And when there is freedom of assembly – when citizens are free to organize in civil society – then countries can better address challenges that government sometimes cannot solve by itself."
Obama said upholding human rights is not a threat to society, but creates stability and stokes progress.