Obama and Trong
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) reaches out to shake hands with Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong following their meeting in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington July 7, 2015. REUTERS/JONATHAN ERNSTReuters

The US and Vietnam celebrated the 20th anniversary of normalised relations with a 'historic' meeting between President Barack Obama and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, the head of Vietnam's communist party.

The White House described the meeting as "historic" with both leaders discussing various issues including trade, climate change and plans to cooperate on defence issues.

Obama spoke about the "remarkable progress" that has taken place between the two countries since relations normalised, while also acknowledging the "difficult history" between the two countries.

"There continue to be significant differences in political philosophy and political systems between our two countries. But because, I think, of the efforts of leaders in both parties here in the United States as well as the leadership in Vietnam over successive years, what we've seen is the emergence of a constructive relationship that is based on mutual respect and that has benefited the peoples of both countries," Obama said.

Trong said through a translator: "What is important is former enemies transformed to partners." He added that the relationship between both countries will continue to grow.

Obama listed the work the US and Vietnam have done, which covers education, public health as well as security issues and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Vietnam is one of several countries in the trade agreement which Obama believes will open more markets to the US and help increase US influence in the region to counterweight China, CNN reports.

Vietnam and China have been in dispute over sovereignty after China placed an oil rig in waters that Vietnam believed was under its domain.

Obama said the South Sea dispute needs to be resolved using international rules, adding that the goal was to "ensure that the prosperity and freedom of navigation that has underwritten the enormous economic growth that's taken place in the region continues for decades to come."

Trong raised Vietnam's concern about South China Sea without specifically naming China, noting "the recent activities that are not in accordance with international law that may complicate the situation."

Reuters reports that Vietnam is not the only country that has ongoing sovereign disputes. It says China has laid stake to nearly all of the South China Sea while Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei claim overlapping parts.

In a separate statement, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who is also a Vietnam veteran, said that the US Congress is working on authorising $425m for the Department of Defence to help train and equip armed forces in southeast Asian countries to build their maritime capacity to counter China.

"Additionally, I believe the United States must further ease the prohibition on the sale of lethal military equipment to Vietnam at this time, including all platforms that facilitate the Vietnamese armed forces' ability to operate more effectively on, above, and within its territorial waters," McCain said, CNN reports.

Human rights issue in Vietnam

Human rights was also an issue that was discussed between both leaders. Obama said they "discussed candidly some of our differences around issues of human rights," adding that he was confident that the tensions could be resolved diplomatically.

On Monday (6 July) nine members of Congress sent a letter to the President saying that while they welcomed warmer ties with Vietnam and recognised the economic and security potential of the country, they believe that human rights should be at the forefront of the relationship between the US and the communist nation.

"As the list of detained Vietnamese bloggers and prisoners of conscience gets longer and longer, it is more important than ever that the Unite States sends a clear message to Hanoi authorities that respect for human rights is essential for a closer economic and security relationship," the letter said.

The letter also urged Obama to raise the issue of the mistreatment of political and religious prisoners in Vietnam and to urge Trong to release immediately several prominent activists.

A small group of protestors gathered outside the White House during the meeting. Some of them wore T-shirts that read "Human Rights for Vietnam" and holding signs that included "Coalition of Vietnamese Americans against Communism," CNN reports.

Congressional leaders will attend a ceremony to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War today (8 July).