US President Barack Obama has received the leader of Vietnam's Communist Party at the White House, discussing human rights, trade and the South China Sea. Washington and Hanoi are marking 20 years of normalized ties.
Four decades after the end of the Vietnam War, Nguyen Phu Trong became the first general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party to visit the United States and the White House. US President Barack Obama welcomed him into the Oval Office, an honor usually reserved for heads of state and government. The US State Department said it was "not a typical meeting for the president."
In a press conference after the meeting, Obama alluded to the growing closeness between the onetime opponents. "Obviously there has been a difficult history," he said. "What we've seen is the emergence of a constructive relationship that is based on mutual respect." Trong also spoke in positive terms, and said he was "convinced that our relationship will continue to grow in the future."
Both nations are keen to strengthen ties, with the US seeing Vietnam as a potential linchpin in its Asia policy. The Southeast Asian nation, meanwhile, views the US as the ideal ally against China's expansionist ambitions, calling for a resolution through international law over maritime disputes with Beijing concerning the South China Sea.
Also on the table were issues such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, which Obama said had the potential to "create significant job growth and prosperity for both the Vietnamese and the American people." Some politicians have called for Vietnam to be excluded from the 12-nation agreement until it moves forward on political rights. Later the US leader brought up Vietnam's human rights record, saying "candid" discussions were held over the two countries' differing opinions.
Outside the White House a few hundred protesters gathered, demanding Hanoi release political prisoners and loosen restrictions on freedom of speech. Ahead of the talks, nine Democratic and Republican members of Congress wrote an open letter to Obama, calling on him to take a harder stance on humanitarian freedoms in Vietnam. "This authoritarian one-party system is the root cause of the deplorable human rights situation in Vietnam," it read.
Trong said he had extended an invitation to the President to visit Vietnam, which Obama had accepted, though did not mention when the trip would talk place. The general secretary will also meet with Republican Senator John McCain on Wednesday, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
an/jr (dpa, AP, AFP, Reuters)