Martin Petty, Reuters
By Martin Petty
HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam is showing progress on human rights but must signal stronger commitment to win over hesitant U.S. legislators who could complicate the country's accession to a lucrative Pacific trade pact, a top American official said on Monday.
Tom Malinowski said he had seen Vietnam show more restraint this year, with fewer political prisoners and no new dissident prosecutions, but gains were fragile and "very significant problems" remained.
"Vietnam has come a tremendous distance but there's still some distance to go," Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, told reporters after an annual human rights dialogue.
"We know that reform in Vietnam is going to be a long-term process but there's also the urgency of now."
The United States has been intensifying efforts in building stronger ties with Vietnam - in health, education, environment, energy and recently military - to boost its clout in Asia and offset China's influence.
But human rights has been a sticking point, with Washington critical of Vietnam's zero-tolerance handling of dissent. Malinowski said harassment, threats and violence were still happening.
Malinowski met officials from Vietnam's Ministry of Public Security, the internal security agency he said would be pivotal in deciding how far bilateral ties can grow.
"The MPS hold the key to realizing that potential," he said.
The two countries are seeking to conclude talks on a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact from which Vietnam's manufacturing, exports-led economy stands to gain most among the dozen nations expected to become its founder members.
Malinowski appealed to hardliners to allow greater freedoms and allay "serious and legitimate concerns" about Vietnam in Congress.
"The economic and strategic benefits of being part of TPP vastly outweigh any reason why some in the government might fear taking that step," he said.
"It's not just a vote on trade, I see it as the most important vote on human rights the congress will be taking all year."
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch in Asia, said only a reformed Vietnam should be considered as a TPP partner.
"No one should mistake the holding of another round of diplomatic talks as meaning that Vietnam has committed to take actual steps to improve its dire human rights record," he said prior to the talks.
Vietnam's Foreign Ministry said both countries shared "frank, open, sincere and constructive" discussions on efforts, challenges and achievements in human rights.
(editing by John Stonestreet)