WASHINGTON — The head of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party said Wednesday that differences with the United States on human rights should not be allowed to obstruct the deepening of relations between the former enemies.
Nguyen Phu Trong, the one-party state's de facto leader, spoke at a Washington think tank after an unprecedented meeting Tuesday with President Barack Obama at the White House.
Trong's visit comes 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War and 20 years after Washington and Hanoi restored diplomatic relations. On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, lawmakers honored American veterans at a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of U.S. ground troops in Vietnam.
Trong called for the two nations to take relations "to the next level" after declaring a comprehensive partnership in 2013. He said they have a common interest in peaceful resolution of disputes and freedom of navigation in the disputed South China Sea, and there was lots of potential to increase trade and investment ties.
U.S. officials see stronger ties with Vietnam as a linchpin in Obama's Asia policy, and last fall eased restrictions on sales of lethal weaponry to Vietnam for maritime security as concern grows over Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, which is an important conduit for world trade.
Human rights have remained a sore point, although the U.S. says Vietnam's prosecution of dissidents has decreased. According to the State Department, Vietnam was holding about 125 political prisoners at the end of 2014.
On the eve of Trong's visit, a bipartisan group of nine U.S. lawmakers urged Obama to call on the party leader to release a number of detainees, saying 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 Vietnam wants to promote and protect the human rights of all people, including the poor and those in mountainous areas, but added that the rights of each individual must be put in the context of the wider community. He said people are not detained because of their religion or background, but because they violated the law.
He said dialogue was needed between the U.S. and Vietnam as they had a different understanding on the issue.
"But we should not let this human rights issue be an obstacle to our relationship," Trong told the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
After Tuesday's Oval Office meeting, Obama said he and Trong spoke candidly about human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. The Southeast nation's restrictions on labor unions have also come under scrutiny as Vietnam is among the 12 nations negotiating the U.S.-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.