Warm reception for party boss in Washington

obama

Warm welcome for Mr Trong in the Oval Office

In a historic encounter in the White House, President Obama welcomed the leader of the Vietnamese Communist party, Nguyen Phu Trong.

Both leaders spoke of the growing friendship between the two countries in a calculated display that sends a strong message to Beijing amid continuing tension in the South China Sea.

“We have seen the emergence of a constructive relationship based on mutual respect,” said President Obama, although he also stressed the significant differences in their political systems and political philosophy.

Mr Trong said they had been transformed from enemies to friends and he was convinced the relationship would continue to grow in the future.

Analysts saw high significance in the US decision to host the Communist Party boss in the Oval Office – extremely rare for a leader who is neither a head of state nor a head of government.

It underlines the importance the US attaches to cooperation with Vietnam as it seeks partners to counter the growing strategic challenge from Beijing across East Asia and the western Pacific.

Mr Trong, seen as a hardliner at the pinnacle of Vietnam’s communist establishment, described the meeting as “cordial, constructive, positive and frank.”

Government critics in Vietnam are looking for signs of any concessions that Mr Trong may have made in return for his high profile reception.

President Mr Obama said he had brought up the question of human rights violations and religious freedom during the talks.

He also underlined the political gulf that still existed between them.

A crowd of pro-democracy protesters gathered outside the White House during the talks and Congressmen wrote an open letter stressing the Communist Party’s record of political repression.

However, the main focus of the meeting is likely to have been China’s growing assertiveness in the disputed waters of the South China Sea and progress towards the formation of the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“The recent activities there are not in accordance with international law and may complicate efforts to resolve the problem,” said Mr Trong in a clear reference to China’s construction work on disputed islands.

Mr Trong’s visit appears to signal growing enthusiasm in Vietnam for the planned TPP – even amongst party hardliners.

Any agreement will involve concessions to the United States, most pointedly on labour rights and the environment.

It’s unclear how much ground Vietnam will give in order to secure a deal, but it sees closer trade and economic cooperation with the US as the key to boosting growth and enhancing the US strategic position against China’s ambitions..

“Many Vietnamese people will be happy to see the Communist Party leader in the White House,” said an academic based in Ho Chi Minh City, who did not want to be named.

“But those who are campaigning for human rights and more democratic freedoms will be dismayed. They worry that the US will get too close to Hanoi and lose interest in backing civil society groups,” he said.