- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 7, 2015

President Obama told the leader of Vietnam’s Communist Party that he plans to visit the Southeast Asian nation soon, as the two leaders discussed growing tensions with China and Vietnam’s poor record on human rights in an Oval Office meeting Tuesday.

Although Mr. Obama didn’t specify a date, he told Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong that he is looking “forward to visiting your beautiful country some time in the future.” Mr. Trong said he was glad that Mr. Obama “graciously accepted my invitation.”

The president is scheduled to attend summits in Malaysia and in the Philippines in November, and it’s widely expected he’ll add Vietnam to his travel itinerary. The meeting on Tuesday was held to mark the 20th anniversary of the U.S. and Vietnam normalizing relations.

Administration officials are eager to improve relations with Vietnam, viewing it as a key to Mr. Obama’s goal of rebalancing U.S. foreign policy toward Asia. Vietnam is a party to the Trans Pacific Partnership, Mr. Obama’s proposed massive free-trade deal with Pacific Rim nations, and is concerned about China’s expansion in the South China Sea.

China is claiming rights to nearly all of the South China Sea, while Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries claim overlapping parts of it. In a gesture toward Vietnam’s concerns, Mr. Obama said the dispute in the South China Sea needed to be resolved using international rules.

The goal is to “ensure that the prosperity and freedom of navigation that has underwritten the enormous economic growth that’s taken place in the region continues for decades to come,” the president said.

Speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Trong said he and Mr. Obama “shared their concerns” about China’s activities in the South China Sea that are “not in accordance with international law that may complicate the situation.” Neither man mentioned China by name.

Mr. Trong is the de facto leader of Vietnam, although he holds no official government post.

Even as the two leaders emphasized areas of cooperation, Mr. Obama said they also spoke candidly about human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam.

“There continue to be significant differences in political philosophy and political systems between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said. “What I’m confident about is that diplomatic dialogue and practical steps taken together will benefit both countries, that these tensions can be resolved in an effective fashion.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers urged the president before the meeting to challenge the Vietnamese leader on the country’s human-rights abuses, including the jailing of journalists and bloggers.

“This authoritarian one-party system is the root cause of the deplorable human rights situation in Vietnam,” wrote the lawmakers, led by Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican. “As the list of detained Vietnamese bloggers and prisoners of conscience gets longer and longer, it is even more important than ever that the United States sends a clear message to the Hanoi authorities that respect for human rights is essential for a closer economic and security relationship.”

Mr. Trong said that 20 years ago, a substantive meeting between the countries’ leaders was unimaginable.

“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.

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