WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama departed Saturday on a weeklong, 16,000-mile trip to Asia, part of his effort to pay more attention to the region and boost economic and security cooperation.
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He'll spend three days in Vietnam, with stops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, for meetings with leaders, a speech on U.S.-Vietnam relations, visits to cultural treasures and sessions with civic leaders and entrepreneurs. From Vietnam, he heads to Japan for a summit of the Group of Seven industrialized nations and a historic visit to Hiroshima.
Along the way, Obama will make a big push for the 12-nation trans-Pacific trade agreement, which includes the U.S., Vietnam and Japan. The deal is stalled in Congress, but Obama hopes it will one day increase trade in the region and make it easier for U.S. workers and companies to compete in Asia. The deal faces strong opposition from the leading 2016 presidential candidates and other critics, who say it doesn't do enough to protect U.S. workers from unfair competition.
A sticking point during Obama's stay in Vietnam will be human rights. Five Republican senators sent the president a letter Friday labeling Vietnam "one of the most repressive regimes in the world" and urging Obama to press Vietnamese leaders to do more to respect freedom of religion and expression and other human rights. The letter was signed by Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, John Boozman of Arkansas, John Cornyn of Texas, James Lankford of Oklahoma and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana.
Before Obama left, Vietnam granted early release from prison to a Catholic priest who is one of its most prominent dissidents. The move is widely viewed as a goodwill gesture before the president arrives in Hanoi late Sunday night for an official visit.
The Catholic archdiocese of the central city of Hue reported on its webpage that it welcomed the return Friday of the Rev. Nguyen Van Ly from prison. Ly, 70, has served several long terms in prison or under house arrest for promoting political and religious freedoms in the communist nation.
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Obama's final year in office is heavy with foreign travel as he conducts what amounts to a long, global farewell tour. He's already made a historic trip to Cuba and visited Saudi Arabia, Germany and Britain. He's due to make a daytrip to Canada next month, attend a NATO summit in Poland in July and expected to become the first president to visit Laos in the fall. He's also expected to attend a fall summit of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market nations in China and an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru in November.