HANOI - Britain is giving "increased emphasis" to its relationship with Asia and is expanding its diplomatic presence in the region, Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Wednesday in Vietnam.
Hague, the first British foreign secretary to visit Hanoi in 17 years, said the two-day visit was part of a new drive to bolster the "very important" relationship between the two countries, particularly improving business ties.
"Our bilateral trade increased 33 per cent last year in 2011. We now have two and a half billion dollars of investments by British businesses in Vietnam," he said.
The countries are also "looking at a stronger dialogue and cooperation on defence in the future," he said, but added this was at an early stage.
Hague, who will travel on to Singapore and Brunei later this week, said Britain was expanding its diplomatic network in the region, and that he would announce the opening of new diplomatic posts in Asia while in Singapore.
Vietnam and Britain have "important differences," over human rights and democracy, Hague said, adding that by engaging with the communist regime Britain hopes to "influence the country in a positive direction."
"Some of this work may take a long time but it is very important that we are engaged in it," he added.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said the Vietnamese government "systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly."
In a briefing paper sent to the Australian government ahead of an annual bilateral rights dialogue which opens Thursday in Hanoi, the New York-based group urged Canberra to call for the release of all political prisoners.
"Vietnam has mastered the practice of harassing, arresting, and charging activists brave enough to speak their minds with vaguely worded national security crimes," said Phil Robertson, HRW's deputy Asia director.
"Australia should call out the Vietnam authorities on their farcical claims that they don't have any political prisoners, because all those convicted have violated these rights-abusing laws."
HRW said that in first quarter of 2012, Vietnam sent at least 12 people to prison for peacefully exercising their rights. Some 33 people were jailed in 2011, HRW said.