HANOI • The head of Vietnam's Communist Party will meet President Barack Obama this week, the first party chief to visit the US as the two countries seek closer ties 40 years after the war they fought ended.
Mr Obama will welcome Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong tomorrow, the White House said last Friday. Although
Mr Trong holds no government rank, he is deemed to be the state leader under the Constitution.
Mr Trong will be hosted in the Oval Office, a break with protocol and an uncommon honour for someone who is not the head of state or government.
The visit to the United States underscores the converging interests of the two countries at a time of China's territorial dispute with Vietnam in the South China Sea, and reflects a shift in strategy among Vietnam's communist elite.
Mr Trong, 71, said in written answers to questions from Bloomberg that Vietnam would prioritise ties with the United States "as one of the most important partners in our foreign policy".
The Vietnamese party chief said he will use the trip to discuss issues including the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, security cooperation and climate change.
Mr Obama will discuss ways to strengthen the US-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, in addition to talking about the trade accord, human rights and bilateral defence cooperation, said the White House.
The visit may produce accords on avoiding double taxation, a health initiative and several business deals, and potentially set the stage for Mr Obama to visit Vietnam later this year, said a State Department official who asked not to be named.
Bilateral trade between the countries soared to US$36 billion (S$48 billion) last year from US$451 million in 1995, according to the US Census Bureau.
On the strategic cooperation front, the US is providing Vietnam with six patrol boats, part of a US$18 million military aid package.
Mr Trong is viewed as friendlier towards China than the US, and thus his visit to the US is even more significant, Mr Le Dang Doanh, an economist and former government adviser in Hanoi, pointed out.
The interests of the US and Vietnam became more aligned when China placed an oil rig in waters near the contested Paracel Islands last year, triggering anti-Chinese protests and riots in Vietnam.
Tensions have also risen over Beijing's reclamation of reefs in the South China Sea, even as it remains Hanoi's largest trading partner.
"They have to reach out to the US," Mr Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii, said of Vietnam. "They need to do something to strengthen Vietnam's capability to stand up to China. It has reached a tipping point."
Said Mr Trong, using Vietnam's term for the South China Sea: "We are all aware of the strategic location of the East Sea.
"I hope the US will continue to have appropriate voice and actions to contribute to peaceful settlement of disputes in the East Sea, in accordance with international law."