Historic meeting between Obama, Viet party leader

Historic meeting between Obama, Viet party leader
Obama shakes hands with Trong after they spoke to reporters following their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington.
PHOTO: Reuters

Two decades on from the normalisation of US-Vietnam ties, Vietnamese leader Nguyen Phu Trong met US President Barack Obama at the White House during an important strategic visit, highlighting deepening reconciliation and trade and security ambitions.

Both leaders stressed the need for their countries to look beyond a difficult history and Mr Trong said few could have imagined a substantive meeting between the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam and a US president 20 years ago.

"What is of utmost importance is that we have been transformed from former enemies to become friends, partners - comprehensive partners. And I'm convinced that our relationship will continue to grow in the future," he said on Tuesday, speaking in Vietnamese.

Mr Obama, who was invited to visit Vietnam, said both countries still had significant differences in political philosophy and political systems.

"But because, I think, of the efforts of leaders in both parties here in the United States, as well as the leadership in Vietnam over successive years, what we've seen is the emergence of a constructive relationship that is based on mutual respect, and that has benefited the peoples of both countries."

Forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the smiling photos and warm words, however, did little to mask the serious strategic nature of the visit, especially in the context of Vietnam-China ties and Vietnamese party elections next year.

"Obama doesn't normally meet party chiefs," said Mr Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for South-east Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

"The US is trying to help Vietnam maintain some semblance of an independent foreign policy at a time when China is becoming much more assertive in the South China Sea."

Vietnam has clashed with China over Beijing's claims to most of the South China Sea and Mr Obama said he discussed with Mr Trong the importance of resolving maritime disputes in accordance with international law.

The two sides also backed a swift conclusion to the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, now that the US Congress has granted the President fast-track negotiating authority on the deal.

Mr Obama said a deal which improves labour and human rights standards had enormous potential, and could "create significant job growth and prosperity" for both Vietnamese and Americans.

Negotiators from all 12 countries, which include Vietnam and Singapore, will meet in Hawaii at the end of this month.

Some factions in the US are worried about opening trade ties with a country it views as having doubtful labour and human rights standards.

A group of protesters gathered outside the White House as Tuesday's meeting was taking place, while a group of seven senators sent a letter to the President, urging him to press the Vietnamese leader on human rights.

Mr Obama, who has yet to confirm when he will visit Vietnam, is scheduled to travel to Manila for an Apec summit later this year and officials say he may stop over then.


This article was first published on July 9, 2015.
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