President Barack Obama said the “difficult history” between the U.S. and Vietnam is being replaced by a relationship based on mutual economic and security interests in a region where some nations are wary of China’s rise.
Obama met at the White House on Tuesday with Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong, who invited him to visit Vietnam. The president said that while differences remain in areas including human rights and religious freedom, the two countries are developing “a constructive relationship.”
Part of that is Vietnam’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a planned free-trade agreement with the U.S. and 10 other nations.
“This was an excellent opportunity for us to deepen our discussion,” Obama said after the meeting. The trade deal has “enormous potential” for economic growth for both countries, he said.
Trong said the U.S. and Vietnam have been able to “rise above the past.”
“What is of utmost importance is we have transformed from former enemies to friends,” he told reporters.
The Oval Office talks with Trong, 71, were unusual as Obama typically only meets with other heads of state in such a setting. While Trong holds no government rank he’s deemed to be the head of state under the constitution. Their talks come amid White House efforts to boost economic and defense ties with the country as China expands its influence in Asia.
China is reclaiming reefs in disputed areas of the South China Sea. Vietnam also claims reefs in the waters and ties between the two countries have been strained since a 1979 border war, even as China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner.
Obama said resolving those disputes under international agreements will ensure that freedom of navigation, which has helped underwrite Asia’s growth, can continue. Trong invited Obama to visit during a trip to Asia expected later this year and the Vietnam government said on its website that Obama had accepted.
The president has called the Pacific trade pact a top priority of his second term. Last week, negotiations gained momentum when Obama signed legislation limiting the ability of Congress to amend or block a final deal. Top officials from the 12 Pacific Rim countries will meet in Hawaii at the end of the month in hopes of finishing an agreement.
Trong said Vietnam wants to deepen ties with the U.S. “with the spirit of leaving the past behind, overcoming differences, enhancing common goals, looking to the future,” according to the government’s website. The countries will seek to cooperate more on trade and defense, he said.
“The party for some time suspected the U.S. of scheming against the regime,” Le Hong Hiep, a lecturer at Vietnam National University in Ho Chi Minh City, said by phone. “Obama receiving Mr. Trong in the Oval Office is something Vietnam has pressed for. It recognizes the status of Mr. Trong as an equal and legitimate partner. It’s a major step forward for Vietnam’s relationship with the U.S.”
Last year the U.S. partially lifted a ban on the sale of weapons to Vietnam, allowing transfers of nonlethal arms. Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, used Trong’s visit to call for the U.S. to soften its ban on selling lethal equipment to Vietnam.
The meeting coincides with the 20-year anniversary of former President Bill Clinton normalizing diplomatic ties with Vietnam, and it has drawn protest from some human-rights activists and lawmakers.
In a letter sent to the White House on Monday, a group of seven Republican senators, including Marco Rubio, the Florida lawmaker seeking the party’s presidential nomination, urged Obama to use the trade talks as leverage to secure new human rights guarantees from Vietnam. They called on Vietnam to free political prisoners and repeal laws restricting freedom of expression.
A separate group of nine members of the House led by Christopher Smith, a New Jersey Republican, wrote to Obama to urge the release of journalists and human rights activists being held by the Vietnam government.
“As the list of detained Vietnamese bloggers and prisoners of conscience gets longer and longer, it is more important than ever that the United States sends a clear message to the Hanoi authorities,” the letter said.
Obama said the pair “discussed candidly” some differences between the countries on human rights and freedom of religion. He said he was confident “we can continue to make significant strides” on those issues through diplomacy.
The countries released a joint statement after the meeting in which they pledged to promote and protect human rights. Vietnam and the U.S. “support the maintenance of positive, frank, and constructive dialogue on human rights to improve mutual understanding and reduce differences,” according to the statement.