WASHINGTON — Bolstered by new trade negotiating powers from Congress, President Barack Obama held an unprecedented meeting Tuesday with the head of Vietnam's Communist Party as the U.S. pressed ahead to conclude talks on a groundbreaking Asia-Pacific economic pact.
Twenty years after normalizing diplomatic ties with its one-time foe, Obama sat down at the White House with Nguyen Phu Trong in hopes of drawing closer to a trade deal and strengthening a relationship that U.S. officials see as a linchpin in Obama's Asia policy. As a front-line country nervous about Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, Vietnam would also welcome the U.S. taking a tough line against Beijing.
The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which would drop economic barriers along a 12-nation swath from Chile all the way around the Pacific to Australia, is a central element of Obama's efforts to boost U.S. influence in Asia and to serve as an economic counterweight to China.
Following his meeting with Trong, Obama cast the trade deal as an opportunity to raise labor and environmental standards and said it "could potentially create significant job growth and prosperity for both the Vietnamese and the American people."
Trong, the de facto leader of Vietnam despite holding no official government post, was less effusive, saying both men discussed their differences and the way forward on trade talks and on other issues "in a constructive and candid manner."
The meeting came in the aftermath of Obama's successful legislative fight in Congress for fast-track negotiating authority, which cleared the way for the Obama administration to deal with the most difficult remaining aspects of the negotiations.
Sticking points with Vietnam center on lower tariffs and on reducing the role of state-owned businesses that can cause trade distortions.
"It's down to a few very sensitive issues," said Myron Brilliant, the head of international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which was hosting Trong at a dinner. "The sense I got from our negotiators is that Vietnam came prepared to be quite constructive in their engagement here in Washington."
In remarks following their meeting, Obama said that despite differences over "political philosophy," the two countries are also deepening cooperation on health, climate and other issues.
Even as Obama and Trong emphasized areas of cooperation, the U.S. president said they spoke candidly about human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam.
Demonstrators protested outside the White House demanding an end to human rights violations. And a bipartisan group of nine lawmakers urged Obama to call on Trong to release a number of detainees. A letter organized by Republican Rep. Chris Smith, chairman of a House human rights subcommittee, said the U.S. must send "a clear message to the Hanoi authorities that respect for human rights is essential for a closer economic and security relationship."
Trong said he extended an invitation for Obama to visit Vietnam and the president had accepted. While Obama noted the invitation, he made no specific commitments to travel to Vietnam during his presidency.
Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both visited Vietnam.
Both leaders made reference to the war that defined the generation of the 1960s and 1970s and noted the transformation in the relationship since diplomatic ties were established in July 1995.
"What we've seen is the emergence of a constructive relationship that is based on mutual respect, and that has benefitted the peoples of both countries," Obama said.
Following the White House meeting, Vice President Joe Biden hosted Trong for a lunch at the State Department.
Obama is the first post-Vietnam War president who didn't come of age during that searing conflict. But Obama has often made the case that the war had a lingering effect on the nation that still affects public sentiment toward government and politicians.
White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.