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Pompeo to stop in Vietnam during Asia tour

HANOI (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Vietnam on Thursday and Friday as part of a tour of Asia, the Vietnamese and U.S. governments said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks to board an aircraft to leave for Maldives, in Colombo, Sri Lanka October 28, 2020. Eranga Jayawardena/Pool via REUTERS

The visit was announced after a U.S. citizen sentenced last year to 12 years in a Vietnamese jail for “attempting to overthrow the state” was released by Hanoi and returned to his home in California last week.

The Vietnamese government’s news website said Pompeo’s visit would mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The U.S. State Department confirmed Pompeo would add Vietnam to his four-leg tour. Pompeo arrived in the Maldives on Wednesday after visits to Sri Lanka and India and is due to hold meetings in Indonesia on Thursday.

Michael Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam in 1964 and lived in the United States since childhood, was detained in July 2018 on suspicion of anti-government activities, including alleged incitement of protesters to attack government offices with Molotov cocktails and slingshots, state media reported at the time.

Nguyen told a Zoom news conference on Wednesday he had been “essentially kidnapped” and interrogated “for 16 hours at a time for days.”

A U.S. senior administration official said Pompeo’s visit had not been dependent on Nguyen’s release, adding: “We’ve been looking for ways to celebrate the relationship all year thanks to COVID.”

The official, who did not want to be identified, said a number of top U.S. officials had argued for Nguyen’s release on “humanitarian grounds” and called it an important symbol in celebrating the diplomatic landmark.

Foes during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s, Hanoi and Washington have enjoyed warmer relations in recent years but some trade tensions have emerged lately.

The U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) confirmed in August that at President Donald Trump’s behest, it was investigating whether Vietnam had been undervaluing its dong currency and harming U.S. commerce.

Human rights has also been an issue raised by the U.S. side, but both countries share concerns about an increasingly assertive China.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc this week called on Trump to have “a more objective assessment of the reality in Vietnam” with regards to the trade imbalance between the two countries. He said exchange rate policy was not aimed at helping exports.

Pompeo said in Sri Lanka on Wednesday the Chinese Communist Party was operating as a “predator”. Last month he urged Southeast Asian countries to stand up to bullying by China and to reassess business deals with Chinese state firms.

Reporting by Phuong Nguyen and Khanh Vu; Additional reporting by Alasdair Pal in New Delhi, Gayatri Suroyo in Jakarta, Steve Holland and David Brunnstrom in Washington and Bill Tarrant in Los Angeles; Writing by James Pearson; Editing by Robert Birsel, Alexandra Hudson and Grant McCool