|Phan Van Khai|
Former President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam at the end of his term in office in November of 2000, but Mr. Khai's Washington visit will be the first by a Vietnamese leader since the end of the Vietnam war 30 years ago.
The Clinton administration's move to restore political ties with Hanoi in 1995 was controversial and drew protests from congressional conservatives, veterans groups and families of U.S. servicemen still listed as missing in Indochina.
However Mr. Khai's visit is stirring little controversy, amid among other things years of Vietnamese cooperation in the search for missing Americans, and growing two-way trade.
At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli said the bilateral relationship with Hanoi has made some important strides during the decade since normalization.
"We, as you know, reached an agreement on religious freedom and actions and commitments that the Vietnamese would take to address our concerns in this area," Mr. Ereli says. "Vietnam is looking to join the WTO and that's something that we think is important and are working with the Vietnamese and our other partners in WTO to support. And there is, obviously, the very important issue of MIAs and other post-conflict subjects, which continue to be an important aspect of the bilateral relationship."
The two governments announced an agreement May 5 under which the Hanoi government agreed to take a number of steps to improve its record on religious freedom in order to avoid possible U.S. sanctions under a 1998 act of Congress.
Vietnam was listed along with seven other nations as a country of particular concern in the State Department's annual global report in religious freedom issued last March.
Under last month's unprecedented bilateral agreement, Vietnam committed to a number of steps including releasing religious prisoners, allowing closed churches to reopen, and banning the practice of coerced renunciations of faith.
Spokesman Ereli said U.S. officials are hopeful Hanoi will follow through with the commitments, so that sanctions can be avoided when compliance is reviewed later this year.
Despite the commitments on religious freedom, the group Human Rights Watch said Vietnam's overall record on human rights is dismal, and is urging President Bush to vigorously press the issue when he meets Mr. Khai.
In a statement last Friday, Human Rights Watch said Vietnam's highly-publicized economic reform steps have not been accompanied by human rights improvements.
The New York-based watchdog group said continuing abuses by Vietnam include arrests of democracy activists and dissident internet writers, and censorship and control over the domestic media including the internet.
The United States and Vietnam concluded a trade agreement in 2001, and last week completed an eighth round of bilateral talks on Hanoi's bid to join the World Trade Organization.
Private U.S. companies invested nearly $70 million in Vietnam last year and two-way trade in 2004 exceeded six billion dollars.
Prime Minister Khai preceded his Washington visit with a stop in Seattle, Washington Monday where he and the chairman of the U.S. software giant Microsoft, Bill Gates, signed an agreement to improve access to computer technology in Vietnam.
Pentagon officials say U.S. teams go to Vietnam several times a year to search for remains of missing servicemen, and that more than 500 American have been accounted for since the two governments began the joint searches in 1986.