HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — The powerful head of Vietnam's Communist Party will travel to the United States for the first time next week, and said he expects President Barack Obama will visit Vietnam later this year.
Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong said Friday he hopes to build trust and create more opportunities to improve relations between one-time foes as they mark the 20th anniversary of normalized 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 Trong would arrive on Tuesday, and the leaders would discuss trade, human rights and defense cooperation. It did not confirm a visit by Obama to Vietnam, which would be his first.
Obama is expected to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in the neighboring Philippines in November.
Trong, 71, hosted a small group of Western journalists on Friday, 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 U.S. have differences on a number of issues such as perception on democracy, human rights and trade," Trong wrote in his reply to questions from The Associated Press.
"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," he wrote.
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 Communist state, but the country is ruled by the party's collective leadership, and most important decisions must be decided by a 16-member Politburo.
Trong is considered to be in the leadership's conservative camp, tilting more toward 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 U.S. 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 Southeast Asia's biggest exporter to the U.S. They seek to benefit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial yet-to-be-finalized trade agreement.
There are hiccups in the relationship, however.
Critics point to Vietnam's arrests of dissidents and say that until human rights are improved, Washington should not grant too many favors, such as Vietnam's request to purchase a range of weapons that are now currently restricted.