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Vietnamese Communist Party Chief Makes 1st White House Visit


A bit of history was made today. For the first time, a Communist Party chief from Vietnam held talks with an American president at the White House. The meeting came just days before the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations between the two countries, and it was an opportunity for the U.S. to further its reengagement with Asian nations. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: President Obama and Vietnamese secretary general, Nguyen Phu Trong, emerged from a nearly hour-long meeting in the Oval Office, saying they're pleased with how the relationship between the two countries has grown from enemies into partners.


BARACK OBAMA: We've made significant progress on deepening our cooperation in the areas of education, science, technology, climate change, public health, as well as security issues.

NORTHAM: Trong even extended an invitation to Obama to visit Vietnam in the future. As secretary general of the Communist Party, Trong is the most powerful man in Vietnam. Although he doesn't hold an official government post, the Obama administration is giving him the same treatment as it would a head of state. That's because Trong is key to deciding the direction Vietnam takes in the near future, says Frank Jannuzi, the head of the Mansfield Foundation.

FRANK JANNUZI: Vietnam is at an inflection point as a nation. They need to choose whether their path of modernization is going to involve integration with the West and Western markets or whether it's going to be principally focused on China and integration with China's economy China's political system.

NORTHAM: Jannuzi says the Obama administration is using Trong's visit to help nurture an important ally as part of its so-called pivot to Asia. But there are concerns about embracing Vietnam too closely.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

NORTHAM: A large crowd gathered outside the White House ahead of Trong's visit to protest against the Communist Party's human rights record. Obama said he had a frank discussion with Trong about the issue. But it was clear the thrust of the talks was about building the relationship, particularly trade. Vietnam is one of 12 nations negotiating the massive Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, or TPP. Anthony Nelson, director of the US-ASEAN Business Council says the deal would help both countries.

ANTHONY NELSON: The U.S. is the largest market for Vietnamese products, and Vietnam has been particularly interested recently in increasing the amount of foreign investment that they're able to attract.

NORTHAM: Vietnam and the U.S. are also increasing their security alliance. Vietnam is concerned about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Both countries have territorial claims over islands thought to be rich in oil, gas and fish. Patrick Cronin with the Center for a New American Security says Trong's meeting with Obama will certainly catch China's attention.

PATRICK CRONIN: China's very concerned about a growing security relationship as well as about Vietnam joining the Trans Pacific Partnership. They see this as Vietnam creating a relationship with the United States that could cement U.S. presence and influence on mainland Asia in a way that China is not keen to support.

NORTHAM: Still, Cronin says Trong will be careful to balance Vietnam's relationship with its regional neighbor China and its budding partner, the U.S. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.