President Barack Obama has invited his Vietnamese counterpart to visit the United States this month, looking to boost cooperation on security and trade despite concerns over the communist state’s rights record.
President Truong Tan Sang’s visit would be only the second by a Vietnamese head of state to Washington since the former war adversaries normalized relations and comes as both governments see growing common interests.
Two people familiar with the trip plans, who were not allowed to be quoted by name, said that Obama has invited Sang to the White House during the last week of July.
The White House and Vietnamese embassy declined immediate comment.
Vietnam has been eager to expand military cooperation with the United States as Southeast Asian nations accuse a rising China of increasingly aggressive tactics to exert territorial disputes.
The Vietnamese president visited Beijing last month to discuss disputes. Chinese state media said that the historic rivals agreed to establish a hotline to resolve incidents involving fishing boats in the hotly contested South China Sea.
Administration officials who testified before Congress last month said that Vietnam’s human rights record was deteriorating, with the country holding more than 120 political prisoners and stepping up curbs on the Internet.
Duy Hoang, a spokesman for Viet Tan, a US-based advocacy group banned by Hanoi, said that Obama should press Sang to institute “true political freedom” and to free prisoners including the prominent Catholic dissident lawyer Le Quoc Quan.
Obama has made Southeast Asia a priority, seeing an opportunity to build relations with a region that has posted high economic growth rates and is mostly friendly to the United States.
The United States has also been expanding commercial relations with Vietnam, which is one of a dozen nations negotiating the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The Obama administration has envisioned the pact as the basis for a new order, which would set rules for the Asia-Pacific region at a time of rapid change marked by China’s rise.
The only previous Vietnamese president since the war to visit the White House was Nguyen Minh Triet in 2007 at Bush’s invitation. Protesters trailed his six-day US visit.
Sang visited Hawaii last year for an Asia-Pacific summit and Vietnamese prime ministers have visited Washington several times since 2005.