President Barack Obama said Tuesday there’s been “remarkable progress” in relations between the U.S. and Vietnam and that he hopes to visit the country “sometime in the future.”
Meeting Tuesday in the Oval Office with Nguyen Phu Trong, the head of Vietnam's Communist Party, Obama said the two countries in the two decades since they have normalized relations are seeing “the emergence of a constructive relationship that is based on mutual respect, and that has benefited the peoples of both countries.”
He said the two countries now are “deepening” cooperation in a host of areas, including education, science, technology and climate change.
Obama, whom Trong invited to see the country, said the two discussed the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that would require Vietnam to raise labor and environmental standards.
They also discussed maritime disputes in the South China Sea, cooperation on climate change and global health and continued people-to-people exchanges.
Lawmakers ahead of the meeting had pressed Obama to raise the treatment of political and religious prisoners in Vietnam. Nine House members led by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., urged Obama to call for the release of journalists and human rights activists.
“As the list of detained Vietnamese bloggers and prisoners of conscience gets longer and longer, it is more important than ever that the United States sends a clear message to the Hanoi authorities,” Smith and the lawmakers said in the letter.
Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Thom Tillis, R-N.C. and five others in a separate letter urged Obama to make human rights improvements in Vietnam a top priority in the meeting, arguing that further expansion of trade and security relationships with the Vietnamese government should be contingent upon improvements in human rights.
“All nations in the TPP agreement should have a common commitment to religious freedoms and human values,” they wrote.
Obama, who called Vietnam a “very constructive partner” on a range of issues including climate change and global peacekeeping, said he and the Secretary General had “discussed candidly” differences on human rights and freedom of religion.
Trong, who noted that two decades many would have considered such a meeting unimaginable, called the talks “cordial, constructive, positive and frank.
“What is of utmost importance is that we have been transformed from former enemies to become friends, partners -- comprehensive partners,” Trong said.
He said the relationship is contributing to “peace, stability, cooperation for prosperity in the region and around the world.
“There has been a bad, difficult chapter in our history, but we have been able to rise above the past to overcome differences,” Trong said.
After the meeting, vice president Joe Biden hosted Trong at a lunch in the Benjamin Franklin Room of the State Department. Biden hailed a series of agreements dealing with double taxation and aviation safety and a series of commercial deals, including one between Boeing and Vietnam Airlines that could be worth $7 billion and another between Boeing and VietJet Air that could be worth another $6 billion.
And he reflected on the 20 years of restored relations with Vietnam, calling it a special event for him.
“I got elected in 1972 as a 29 year old man,’’ Biden, a former U.S. senator said. “My main reason for running was to end the war in Vietnam. And here I am as vice president with the general secretary celebrating 20 year anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations with nothing but promise on the horizon.”