WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama will welcome his Vietnamese counterpart for a rare visit this month, seeking progress on trade and security issues despite concerns over the communist state’s human rights record.
President Truong Tan Sang’s visit, first reported by AFP on Wednesday, will be only the second by a Vietnamese head of state to Washington since the former adversaries normalized relations and comes as both governments see growing common interests.
“The president welcomes this opportunity to discuss with President Sang how to further strengthen our partnership on regional strategic issues and enhance our cooperation with ASEAN,” a White House statement said.
The statement added: “The president also looks forward to discussing human rights, emerging challenges such as climate change, and the importance of completing a high standard Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.”
The visit will take place on July 25.
Vietnam has been eager to expand military cooperation with the United States as Southeast Asian nations accuse a rising China of increasingly aggressive tactics to exert territorial disputes.
While tensions remain high between China and the Philippines, friction has appeared to ease between Beijing and Hanoi in the run-up to Obama’s decision to invite Sang.
The Vietnamese president visited Beijing last month to discuss disputes. Chinese state media said that the historic rivals agreed to establish a hotline to resolve incidents involving fishing boats in the hotly contested South China Sea.
But the growing U.S. relationship with Vietnam has faced sustained criticism on Capitol Hill, where critics accuse the administration of paying only lip service to calls on Vietnam to improve human rights.
Administration officials who testified before Congress last month said that Vietnam’s human rights record was deteriorating, with the country holding more than 120 political prisoners and stepping up curbs on the Internet.
Obama has made Southeast Asia a priority, seeing an opportunity to build relations with a region that has posted high economic growth rates and is mostly friendly to the United States.
Since the start of his second term, Obama has met at the White House with the leaders of Singapore, Brunei and — in a visit that would have been unthinkable before recent democratic reforms — Myanmar.