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Obama presses Vietnam on rights but sees better ties

US President Barack Obama and President Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam meet in the White House in Washington, July 25, 2013
US President Barack Obama and President Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam meet in the White House in Washington, July 25, 2013. Obama urged his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang to strengthen freedom of speech and of religion in his country.

US President Barack Obama said Thursday he spoke frankly to Vietnam's leader about human rights but called for greater cooperation between the former war adversaries in areas from trade to security.

President Truong Tan Sang was only the second Vietnamese head of state to visit the White House since the normalization of relations in 1975 and he was jeered on his arrival by hundreds of Vietnamese Americans, many waving the flags of the former Saigon regime and chanting slogans that were occasionally audible inside the White House.

But the two leaders looked upbeat during their meeting at the Oval Office, with Obama saying that Sang showed him a letter written by revolutionary Ho Chi Minh to former US president Harry Truman that voiced hope for strong relations, two decades before their war started.

"We all recognize the extraordinary complex history between the US and Vietnam, but step by step we have been able to establish a degree of mutual respect and trust," Obama said.

Obama, however, said that he pressed Sang on human rights, a long-standing concern of US lawmakers and Vietnamese Americans.

Several hundred demonstrators from the Vietnamese-American community rally at the White House on July 25, 2013
Several hundred demonstrators from the Vietnamese-American community rally outside the White House on July 25, 2013 in Washington, DC, while US President Barack Obama and President Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam held meetings in the Oval Office.

"The United States continues to believe that all of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly," Obama told reporters at the Oval Office with Sang at his side.

"We had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain," he said.

Several lawmakers have accused Obama of merely mentioning human rights and said he should have made progress a condition for further improvements in relations.

Sang, who acknowledged "differences" between the two countries on human rights, said that Obama had promised to visit Vietnam by the end of his second term. Obama, who would be the third successive US president to visit Vietnam, is expected in the region in October for summits in Bali and Brunei.

Obama said that he hoped for greater cooperation in areas including defense although he was not specific. The United States has steadily increased military cooperation with Vietnam but maintains a ban on export of "lethal" weapons due to human rights concerns.

One factor that has increased ties between the United States and Vietnam is concerns over the rise of China.

A member of the Vietnamese Community  wears a sign during a protest in front of the White House on July 25, 2013
A member of the Vietnamese Community wears a sign during a protest in front of the White House on July 25, 2013, during the visit of Vietnamese President President Truong Tan Sang as he met with US President Barack Obama.

Obama reiterated US calls for progress on an initiative backed by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to work with China on a code of conduct, which would set rules to manage disputes and prevent potential mishaps from escalating.

Obama hoped to "arrive at codes of conduct that will help to resolve these issues peacefully and fairly."

Obama has increasingly put a focus on Southeast Asia, seeing the region as economically vibrant, largely US-friendly and neglected in the past by US policymakers. Sang is the fourth Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House this year.

The United States has spearheaded its Asian effort by championing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which aims to create a vast free trade zone across the Pacific. Twelve nations are participating, including Vietnam and most recently Japan, meaning that the pact would cover 40 percent of the world economy.

Obama has set a goal of completing negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership by the end of the year, although few expect that such a complex deal will be ready so soon.

"We are committed to the ambitious goal of completing this agreement before the end of the year because we know that this can create jobs and increase investment across the region and in both of our countries," he said.

Members of the Vietnamese Community chant and sing during a protest in front of the White House July 25, 2013
Members of the Vietnamese Community from the US and Canada chant and sing during a protest in front of the White House July 25, 2013, during the visit of Vietnamese President President Truong Tan Sang as he met with US President Barack Obama.

US labor activists have called for Obama to threaten to oust Vietnam from the talks to protest the lack of workers' rights in the manufacturing power. The administration, however, has repeatedly praised Vietnam for its participation.

The hundreds of demonstrators in Lafayette Park across from the White House waved flags of the former South Vietnam and chanted slogans that could sometimes be heard inside the executive mansion.

One protester held up a banner, "Communist - Go Home." But in a sign of the patriotism that also drives Vietnamese Americans, several held up signs denouncing not Sang but China over its territorial claims.

"What we want to do is respect human rights and freedom in Vietnam," said demonstrator Huu Dinh Vo of the Federation of Vietnamese American Communities.

"Okay, you can invite him, but you have to put on the table pressure to push the Vietnamese communists to comply with international law and human rights and freedom like in other countries," he said.

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