The head of Vietnam's Communist Party visited with President Barack Obama at the White House Tuesday. Nguyen Phu Trong met with the president and spoke to reporters after the meeting. Mr.Nguyen also invited President Obama to visit Vietnam.
Mr. Obama said the two countries had made notable progress in the last 20 years. He said there were strong difference between the political philosophies of the two countries and "there remain differences in the bilateral relationship."
Among those difference, he said, were human rights and freedom of religion.
Vietnamese-American activists protested the visit by Mr. Nguyen calling for the U.S. to press for more human rights and democracy in Vietnam.
Recognizing the difficult history
After the meeting, both men noted the difficult history the U.S. and Vietnam share.
The visit comes not long after the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. The two countries normalized relations 20 years ago. And the U.S. still bans weapons sales to the Southeast Asian nation.
However, the president said diplomatic discussions and steps taken by both countries and within organizations such as ASEAN could lead to better relations.
The president added that efforts by leaders of both parties in the United States and leader ship in Vietnam have led to a relationship of mutual respect that helps both countries.
Earlier, Nguyen Phu Trong called his meeting at the White House "historic" and said he hoped to build trust with the U.S.
After the meeting, he said his discussion with Mr. Obama had been "frank." But he said what was important was that the countries had gone from being enemies to friends and partners.
Former enemies are now partners
The U.S. and Vietnam have been moving closer together because of tensions in the South China Sea. Vietnam has conflicting territorial claims with China in the western Pacific Ocean area.And China's efforts to build bases on coral islands in the sea have raised international concerns over navigation in the area.
Mr. Obama said after the meeting that he had discussed the importance of solving maritime disputes in a way that observes international law.
The two men also spoke about the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement. Mr. Obama said the agreement would raise labor and environmental standards and would create significant job growth for people in both countries.
Carl Thayer is a Southeast Asia expert. He says the U.S. is increasing its engagement with the Asia-Pacific area. He says the two countries are slowly reaching agreement on some strategic interests including trade.
Mr. Thayer says the importance of the meeting is to help clarify the 2013 Comprehensive Partnership reached when Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visited the White House two years ago.
He notes that the common issues of interest to the two sides are connected. Two such issues are the Trans Pacific Partnership and human rights.
"If Vietnam signs on to the Trans-Pacific Partnership it has to agree to more independent labor unions, which Vietnam doesn't have, and greater transparency. So, Vietnam does what they always do -- release a couple of high-profile dissidents in advance of this meeting to earn some goodwill. Nonetheless, they will continue to arrest people, particularly in the political season as they move up to their party congress (in 2016)."
Human rights activists believe it is too soon to reward Vietnam with improved relations.
John Sifton of the group Human Rights Watch says the Vietnamese government uses repression, torture and religious persecution against its people. He urged the U.S. to pay closer attention to human rights in Vietnam.
Huu Dinh Vo is a member of the Federation of Vietnamese American Communities of the USA.He says, "Any trade relations should be based on an improvement of human rights in Vietnam,otherwise the trade relationship only benefits the Communists' top leaders and not the people in Vietnam."
So far, Mr. Thayer says, Vietnam has preferred a multilateral approach in its relations with big powers like the U.S., China, Russia and India. It has not sided closely with a single major power.
However, Mr. Thayer says this trip appears to show that tensions with China over maritime claims remain and Vietnam is ready to move close to the U.S.
On Tuesday, Vietnam Airlines accepted its first Boeing 787 Dream liner at Washington National Airport. The event marked the 20th anniversary of normalized relations between Vietnam and the U.S.