U.S. President Barack Obama says he had a "very candid" conversation with his Vietnamese counterpart about human rights when he hosted Truong Tan Sang at the White House.
Thursday's meeting earned Sang the honor of being only the second Vietnamese leader to hold talks with a United States president in Washington since the former wartime enemies normalized relations in 1995.
Sitting alongside Sang, Obama told reporters that Washington believes all nations should respect freedoms of speech, religious and assembly. Sang said Vietnam and the United States still have differences on the human rights issue.
Some U.S. lawmakers and rights groups accuse the Vietnamese government of intensifying repression of political dissidents and religious figures in recent years and failing to stop the practice of forced labor.
They have urged Obama to make closer economic ties with Vietnam conditional on that nation's progress on human and labor rights.
A group about 500 rights activists protested the Obama-Sang meeting in Lafayette Park adjacent to the White House as the talks were under way. Most of the demonstrators were Vietnamese Americans from the Washington area. Some had come from Canada and as far away as the midwestern U.S. state of Minnesota.
Vietnamese President Sang defended his record on those issues at a luncheon hosted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday.
Sang said Vietnamese religious leaders in his delegation held "straightforward, open discussions" with U.S. officials to help them develop a "better understanding about the real situation" in Vietnam.
He also said his government has made "sustained efforts to protect and promote human rights," enabling the Vietnamese people to benefit from what he called "the finest results" of Vietnam's reform process.
Speaking Thursday, Obama said he reached agreement with Sang on forming a "comprehensive partnership" to allow greater U.S.-Vietnam cooperation in commerce, military affairs, disaster relief and scientific exchanges.
Obama said he sought Sang's support in securing a Pacific region free trade agreement by the end of this year. The United States and Vietnam are among 12 Pacific area nations negotiating a free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Obama has been trying to boost American influence in Southeast Asia as the region's U.S.-friendly nations look to Washington as a counterweight to China's growing assertiveness in disputes with neighboring states.
Obama accepted an invitation to visit Vietnam before the end of the U.S. president's second term, Sang said.