WHITE HOUSE - Forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, U.S. President Barack Obama and the head of Vietnam’s Communist Party sat side by side in the Oval Office, hailing the “remarkable progress” in relations between the former enemies.
“Obviously, there has been a difficult history between our two countries in the 20th century and there continues to be significant differences in political philosophy and political systems between our two countries. But because, I think, of the effort of leaders in both parties here in the U.S. and leaders in Vietnam, what we have seen is the emergence of a constructive relationship that is based on mutual respect, and that has benefited the peoples of both countries,” Obama said.
The U.S. president Tuesday welcomed General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, who is on his first U.S. visit during the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations between Washington and Hanoi.
“Twenty years ago not too many people would imagine an interesting, substantive meeting between the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam and the president of the United States,” Trong said.
China / TPP
It is a historic visit that comes as amid shared concerns about China’s territorial claims and behavior in the South China Sea. Last year, Beijing stationed an oil rig about 200 kilometers off Vietnam’s coast, and earlier this year began building islands in an archipelago that is also claimed by Vietnam.
“We discussed the importance of resolving maritime disputes in the South China Sea and throughout the Asia-Pacific, in accordance with international law to ensure that the prosperity and freedom of navigation that has underwritten the enormous economic growth that has taken place in the region continues for decades to come,” Obama said.
Neither leader specifically named China, with Trong only referencing “concern about certain activities that are not in accordance with international law that may complicate the situation.”
The two men also discussed the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement, a deal that would include the U.S. and Vietnam among the dozen nations, but not China.
Some Vietnamese have high hopes that this meeting and their country being part of the TPP will elevate U.S.-Vietnam ties in a key step towards countering China’s influence in the region.
Blogger Le Anh Hung, who has taken to the streets to protest against China, says Vietnam needs such an ally to confront Beijing.
“A lot of people hope that the visit would bring breakthrough in the relations between Vietnam and the U.S., and would help Vietnam get rid of political and economic influence from China,” Hung told VOA. “The symbolic visit has led people to have great expectations from the ties between Hanoi and Washington in the future.”
But with talk of trade also come questions on Vietnam’s human rights record. Obama said he and Communist Party leader Trong spoke “candidly” on differences between the two countries on the issue of human rights and freedom of religion.
The U.S. leader noted that with continued cooperation and diplomatic dialogue, both bilaterally and multilaterally, “these tensions can be resolved in an effective fashion.”
Outside the White House Tuesday, members of the Vietnamese-American community from around the U.S. protested the general secretary’s visit, holding signs and chanting slogans calling for democracy and the release of jailed journalists.
California resident Huu Dinh Vo with the Federation of Vietnamese American Communities of the USA says Vietnam’s leaders continue to stifle basic rights, denying freedom of press, freedom of religion and freedom of speech to their people.
“We would like America to press for more human rights and democracy in Vietnam, and any trade relations should be based on an improvement of human rights in Vietnam, otherwise the trade relationship only benefits the Communists’ top leader and not for the people in Vietnam,” Vo said.
He said the U.S. should not forge stronger trade ties with Vietnam unless the Southeast Asian country commits to pursuing a more democratic path.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on Tuesday said the U.S. would like to see a lot more progress on human rights protection in Vietnam, but noted that by engaging with Vietnam and having them join the TPP, the Southeast Asian nation would be making a specific commitment to better protect workers’ rights.
“Just trying to shun and isolate a country can in some cases not put as much pressure on them as actually engaging them,” Earnest said.
Colin Nguyen contributed to this report.