President Barack Obama said Thursday that he and Vietnam's president are committed to completing a regional trade agreement by year's end, saying it will create jobs and boost investment in the Asia-Pacific region and in both countries.
Obama said he and Truong Tan Sang also had a "very candid conversation" about Vietnam's human rights record. Sang put it a little more bluntly, saying through a translator that "we still have differences on the issue."
Human rights activists say Sang should not have been given the "diplomatic reward" of an Oval Office visit, which included remarks to media from both countries, because of the arrests of dissidents and other abuses in the Southeast Asian nation. Sang's visit to the U.S. is just the second by a Vietnamese head of state since the former foes resumed relations in 1995.
Across the street from the White House, dozens of activists assembled in Lafayette Park protesting the visit and called on Obama to put human rights in Vietnam before trade.
Trade is the first issue Obama said he and Sang had discussed.
Washington is negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, with Vietnam and 10 other Asia-Pacific nations. It would be the largest free-trade agreement ever, including countries that make up about 40 percent of world trade.
U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, who met with Sang this week, told a House committee last week that finalizing the agreement by the end of the year, as the Obama administration wants, is "ambitious" but "doable."
Both Obama and Sang face domestic pressure to deliver stronger economic growth. Obama said the pact could help.
"We're 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," Obama told the media, which was invited into his office after the meeting, which lasted more than an hour.
Before arriving in the U.S., Sang told The Associated Press that American concerns over his country's record on human rights shouldn't hinder the closer military and economic ties desired by the two nations.
Obama said he emphasized to Sang during their meeting the United States' belief that all countries must respect people's right to basic freedoms, including expression, religion and assembly.
"We had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain," he said.
Sang said he invited Obama to come to Vietnam and that Obama said he'd "try his best" to visit before leaving office in 2017.
Obama said the meeting was a sign of the "steady progression and strengthening of the relationship" between the countries following a complex history that includes the Vietnam War. He said they are creating a "comprehensive partnership" to pursue deeper cooperation in a range of areas, including trade, commerce, security and other issues.
Obama also said Sang shared with him a copy of a letter sent by Ho Chi Minh to President Harry Truman, and that he and Sang talked about the fact that the leader of the Vietnamese nationalist movement was inspired by the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the words of Thomas Jefferson.
"Ho Chi Minh talks about his interest in cooperation with the United States," Obama said. "And President Sang indicated that even if it's 67 years later, it's good that we're still making progress."