The powerful head of Vietnam’s Communist Party will travel to the United States for the first time next week – and said he expected Barack Obama to visit his country later this year.
Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong said he hoped to build trust and create more opportunities to improve relations between one-time enemies as they mark the 20th anniversary of normalised diplomatic ties.
They are also being brought closer together by shared concerns over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The White House said Mr Trong would arrive on Tuesday and the leaders would discuss trade, human rights and defence co-operation. It did not confirm a visit by President Obama to Vietnam, which would be his first.
Mr Obama is expected to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in the neighbouring Philippines in November.
Mr Trong, 71, hosted a small group of Western journalists and his staff provided his written answers to questions posed in advance.
“Like in any relations between two countries in the world, Vietnam and the US have differences on a number of issues such as perception on democracy, human rights and trade,” Mr Trong said.
“To resolve differences, I believe the most effective way would be open and constructive dialogues to better understand each other so that differences won’t become hurdles to the overall bilateral relations.”
Mr Trong is one of the four most powerful figures in Vietnam, along with President Truong Tan Sang, prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung and National Assembly chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung.
In theory, he is first among equals in the one-party state, but the country is ruled by the party’s collective leadership and most important decisions must be decided by a 16-member politburo.
Mr Trong is considered to be in the leadership’s conservative camp, tilting more towards strong ties with China.
Both Vietnam and the United States are seeking to strengthen their relationship as a way of dealing with strategic and economic challenges.
Beijing’s assertive claims in the South China Sea have put Vietnam on edge and it is interested in having the US as a counterbalance. Washington also wants closer ties with Vietnam to help offset China’s growing strength in the region.
Both countries also seek stronger economic ties, already healthy enough that Vietnam has become south-east Asia’s biggest exporter to the US. They seek to benefit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial yet-to-be-finalised trade agreement. But there are hiccups in the relationship.
Critics point to Vietnam’s arrests of dissidents and say that until human rights are improved, Washington should not grant too many favours, such as Vietnam’s request to buy a range of weapons that are now currently restricted.