US, Vietnam leaders pledge to move ties beyond difficult history during landmark visit

Vice-President Joe Biden (right) listens as General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong speaks before a luncheon at the US State Department.
Vice-President Joe Biden (right) listens as General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong speaks before a luncheon at the US State Department.AFP

US President Barack Obama and visiting Vietnam Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong reaffirmed growing ties between both countries as they hailed the mutual commitment to move past the difficult history between US and Vietnam.

Speaking to reporters after a historic meeting in the White House, Mr Obama said that while differences remain in areas like human rights and freedom of religion, he was confident that candid discussions would eventually pave resolve such tensions in an effective fashion.

“This is an excellent opportunity for us to deepen our discussions around our vision for a comprehensive partnership,” he said.

Mr Trong, the general secretary of the Vietnam Communist Party similarly welcomed the way the US and Vietnam have transformed from foes into friends.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the normalising of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

At a subsequent lunch for Mr Trong hosted by US Vice-President Joe Biden, the Vietnamese leader described the talks he had with President Obama as “substantive” with both sides committing to moving ties in a positive direction.

Mr Biden, in turn, stressed that it was important that US and Vietnamese leaders continue to establish personal relationships and build trust.

“Our relationship is just getting started,” he said.

“Our conversations are no longer about how to address the past but how to seize the future.”

Though there were only broad mentions of the need to work together on the South China Sea, it was clear that the China issue loomed large over the Mr Trong’s first-ever visit to the White House. 

The Vietnamese general secretary is currently trying to play a delicate balancing game between strengthening ties with the US while also not antagonising China.

Tensions between China and Vietnam have been raised over the past year due to extensive land reclamation efforts by Beijing in the South China Sea and also the placement of a Chinese oil rig in contested waters.

The White House appears to also want to shore up its alliance with Vietnam through this visit, symbolically rolling out the red carpet for a Vietnamese leader who is not a recognised head of state.

The Trans Pacific Partnership free trade pact also featured prominently in the meeting.

Mr Biden said at lunch that the agreement is the “most important step the two countries can take this year” to broaden economic relations.

Talks on the 12 nation free trade agreement, which includes Vietnam and Singapore, are reportedly in the final stages.

Observers say a meeting of negotiators in Hawaii at the end of this month could well be the last meeting required.