U.S. President Donald Trump (R) welcomes Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in Washington, May 31, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump (R) welcomes Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in Washington, May 31, 2017.

WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump discussed trade with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc during a White House visit on Wednesday and welcomed the signing of business deals worth billions of dollars and the jobs they would bring.

General Electric said earlier it had signed deals with Vietnam worth about $5.58 billion for power generation, aircraft engines and services, its largest ever single combined sale with the country.

"They just made a very large order in the United States -- and we appreciate that -- for many billions of dollars, which means jobs for the United States and great, great equipment for Vietnam," Trump told reporters at the White House.

Phuc said on Tuesday he would sign deals for U.S. goods and services worth $15 billion to $17 billion during his Washington visit, mainly for high-technology products and for services.

Protesters greet Phuc

Hundreds of people upset by Vietnam’s human rights record, called “dire” by Human Rights Watch, protested outside the White House on Wednesday afternoon.

A Vietnamese-American woman protests outside the W
A Vietnamese-American woman protests outside the White House before President Donald Trump's meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House in Washington, May 31, 2017.

Mai Huynh, a U.S. Navy veteran said, “I’m here today because I think it’s our responsibility to show the young generation in Vietnam that we’re supporting them in their fight for basic human rights, including the right to freely elect our leaders and ask them to listen to our call.”

Others posted comments on VOA Vietnamese: “President Trump, prior to any deal with Vietnam, please make sure to prioritize human rights as a core condition,” said Tien Nguyen.

Lolita Mancheno-Smoak, vice-chairwoman of the Fairfax (Virginia) County Republican Committee, told VOA Vietnamese, “The United States, as a nation, can’t have relationship or coordination with the government that prosecute and imprison its own citizens just because they’re blogging on in the internet and sharing their opinions, or just gathering peacefully or even worshipping the God, and holding the Bible in the public.

“We stand in solidarity with the Vietnamese community and the people in Vietnam to fight for their freedom,” Mancheno-Smoak said of a nation where the ruling Communist Party tightly controls many activities. “It goes to our hearts here in America when we know that people are dying and we feel for them.”

From adversary to partner

Communist Vietnam has gone from being a bitter adversary of the United States during the Cold War to an important partner in the Asia-Pacific, where both countries share concerns about China's rising power.

Phuc told Trump the relationship had undergone "significant upheavals in history," but that the two countries were now "comprehensive partners."

However, while Hanoi and Washington have stepped up security cooperation in recent years, trade has become a potential irritant, with a deficit widening steadily in Vietnam's favor, reaching $32 billion last year, compared with $7 billion a decade earlier.

President Donald Trump welcomes Vietnamese Prime M
President Donald Trump welcomes Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to the White House in Washington, May 31, 2017.

Trump, who has had strong words for countries with large trade surpluses with the United States, said he would be discussing trade with Phuc, as well as North Korea.

Washington has been seeking support for efforts to pressure North Korea to drop its nuclear and missile programs, which have become an increasing threat to the United States. Hanoi has said it shares concerns about North Korea.

Analysts said that while the Trump administration welcomed new business deals with Vietnam, it wants to see moves on trade.

Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said the view was that deals were "nice, but not enough."

"They want Vietnam to bring some ideas about how to tackle the surplus on an ongoing basis," he said.

On Tuesday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer expressed concern about the rapid growth of the deficit with Vietnam. He said it was a new challenge for the two countries and he was looking to Phuc to help address it.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, second
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, second from left, speaks during a bilateral meeting with President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, May 31, 2017.

The deficit with Vietnam -- Washington's sixth largest -- reflects growing imports of Vietnamese semiconductors and other electronics products in addition to more traditional sectors such as footwear, apparel and furniture.

Vietnamese Trade Minister Tran Tuan Anh presented Lighthizer on Tuesday with suggestions to address some U.S. concerns, such as advertising on U.S. social media, electronic payment services and imports of information security and farm products, Vietnam's trade ministry said.
Vietnam also urged the United States to remove an inspection program for catfish, speed import licenses for its fruit and make fair decisions on anti-dumping and anti-subsidy measures on Vietnamese products, the ministry said.

Vietnam was disappointed when Trump ditched the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact, of which Hanoi was expected to be one of the main beneficiaries, and focused U.S. trade policy on reducing deficits.

Phuc's meeting with Trump makes him the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House under the new administration.

It reflected calls, letters, diplomatic contacts and lower-level visits that started long before Trump took office in Washington, where Vietnam retains a lobbyist at $30,000 a month.

Tra Mi of VOA's Vietnamese Service contributed to this report.