US, Vietnam hold talks amid South China Sea tension

Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party leader holds talks with US president as maritime disputes with China worry both Washington and Hanoi in Asia-Pacific

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

US President Barack Obama on Tuesday hosted Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong who became the first communist leader to have visited Washington since the former antagonists have mended their mutual relations almost two decades ago.

Obama met with Trong at the White House when the parties raised their concerns over China’s land reclamation activities in the South China Sea which have constituted the backbone of “candid” talks between old foes.

"We discussed the importance of resolving maritime disputes in the South China Sea and throughout the Asia Pacific," Obama told reporters, adding that human rights, religious freedom and as well as a pending Trans-Pacific trade agreement with the region had been negotiated during the talks.

Beijing has long been conflicting with its maritime neighbours -Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei - in the South China Sea territorial waters, through which $5 trillion in sea-borne trade passes annually.

The parties’ overlapping claims on maritime transportation, navigation, exclusive economic zones, fishing grounds, undersea bed gas and oil reserves that have already deteriorated the problem as China started to build the artificial islands from the last year onwards.

Vietnam was one of the most vulnerable parties of the maritime disputes in the South China Sea where China has been building artificial islands near the Spratly archipelagos.  

Hanoi perceives the US administration as a leverage to the Chinese offensive in the Asia-Pacific region though the parties have fiercely fought almost a half century ago during the Vietnam war due to the ideological ruptures in the Cold War.

However the parties have started a rapprochement 20 years ago despite Vietnam remained a communist rule in the region.

Obama indicated such differences with Vietnam and reassured Trong about Washington’s diplomatic eagerness to further ameliorate the bilateral relations at a time when a “China threat” was addressed by the Pentagon’s new military strategy document earlier this month.

"There continue to be significant differences in political philosophy and political systems between our two countries," Obama said during the press conference with his Vietnamese counterpart.

"Obviously there has been a difficult history," Obama said. "What we've seen is the emergence of a constructive relationship that is based on mutual respect," he added.

Trong also appreciated the 20 years of US-Vietnamese progress in diplomatic relations as he reminded the colicky past between the two countries.

"I think that 20 years ago, not too many people would imagine a meeting- interesting meeting, a substantive meeting between the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam and the President of the United States," Trong said.

"We have been transformed from former enemies to become friends, partners, comprehensive partners. And I’m convinced that our relationship will continue to grow in the future," he added.

Trong, without naming China specifically, stressed the lingering issues in the South China Sea and said, "The recent activities that are not in accordance with international law that may complicate the situation."

As Vietnamese side emphasises the emergent nature of maritime disputes with China during the meeting, the US also focused on ongoing negotiations about the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership (TTP) agreement, one of the long anticipated blueprints of the Obama administration in order to boost American commerce with Asia and Oceania.

The proposed TTP agreement will enable to lift commercial barriers along with a 12-nation swath from Americas to Asia and Australia as an effort to boost US trade to counterbalance China in the region.  
Obama is scheduled to visit Vietnam upon the invitation of Trong, but the White House did not mention a specific date for the president’s historic trip to Hanoi.

TRTWorld and agencies