WASHINGTON — As protesters gathered outside to demand that Vietnam respect human and religious rights, President Bush and Vietnam's prime minister met Tuesday at the White House where Bush afterwards noted that Vietnam had agreed to ensure greater religious freedom.
The president also said he had accepted an invitation to Vietnam in 2006 for a summit of Pacific Rim leaders.
The visit by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai was the first by a leader of communist Vietnam to the White House.
The two leaders talked about Vietnam’s desire to join the World Trade Organization, business issues, human rights and signed an agreement that Bush said would make it easier for people to worship freely in Vietnam.
"We signed a landmark agreement that will make it easier for people to worship freely in Vietnam," Bush told reporters, without elaborating.
Khai noted that Vietnam's 80 million consumers "means a huge market for American businesses," adding that his government's goal is to create "a strong country with wealthy people and a democratic and advanced society."
The 71-year-old Vietnamese leader met Bush in the Oval Office as part of a weeklong visit to the United States. He'll also meet with business leaders and ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange — evidence of Vietnam’s economic gains over the years.
“The United States strongly supports Vietnam’s integration into the world economic community and its bid to join the World Trade Organization,” he said Monday. “They will also use this as an opportunity to work to address religious freedom and human rights concerns.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Navy pilot who spent nearly six years in Vietnamese prisons after his plane was shot down during the Vietnam War, said Tuesday on NBC's "Today" show that Vietnam had made sufficient economic progress to warrant inclusion in the WTO. But, he added, the United States expects progress in other areas, such as human rights.
Video: McCain interview “We have every right to expect the Vietnamese to make significant improvements in human rights and religious freedom,” said McCain, who expects to meet with Khai on Wednesday.
“They have taken some steps," he added, but "our message throughout the world is that we expect progress toward democratic freedom, human rights, elections and all the trappings of democracy.”
Military ties improve
After his discussions with Bush, Khai planned to meet with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Military ties between the two countries have included periodic docking of U.S. warships in Vietnam and plans for U.S. military training of Vietnamese officers. Intelligence sharing and cooperation on counterterrorism activities also are part of the mix.
Khai told the Washington Post in an interview before leaving Hanoi that the two countries will announce Vietnam’s modest new participation in the Pentagon’s International Military Education and Training program.
IMET provides funds for foreign military officers to attend senior defense colleges in America and to send U.S. training teams to other countries to provide guidance in military resources management and civilian-military affairs.
“Exchanges of officers, more high-level visits from senior defense officials on both sides, and development of practical areas for (security) cooperation are areas in which we expect to see growth in the near term,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Greg Hicks, a Pentagon spokesman, said.
Congress must approve funding for the program and human rights are likely to be an issue.
Boeing, Microsoft visits
After he arrived in the United States on Sunday, the Vietnamese leader stopped at Boeing Co.’s plant south of Seattle to oversee the purchase of four 787 airliners by Vietnam Airlines.
On Monday, Khai met with Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates at the company’s headquarters in Redmond, Wash. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)
The two announced that they had signed two memoranda of understanding, to train and develop more Vietnamese information technology companies and to offer computer and software training to more than 50,000 teachers.
In the 10 years since diplomatic ties were restored after the Vietnam War, the United States has become Vietnam’s top trading partner. Last year, two-way trade was worth $6.4 billion.
Human rights concerns
While Khai will want to talk about business, Bush is being pressured by human rights groups and some members of Congress to link any trade concessions with improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record. “There are some steps that have been taken by Vietnam, but there are concerns that remain,” McClellan said Monday.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says it has documented cases of abuses by the communist government, including the arrests of dissidents for promoting democracy or human rights. In Seattle, Khai was greeted by demonstrators who shouted “Down with communists!” and called for an end to political and religious persecution.
During Sunday’s demonstration, Nhien Le, a former officer in the South Vietnamese Air Force, said his fellow demonstrators hoped their presence would let Khai know that Vietnamese Americans want him to address human-rights abuses in Vietnam.
MIAs still an issue
Bush and Khai also are expected to deepen joint efforts to achieve the fullest possible accounting for Americans who remain missing from the Vietnam War. Veterans groups and families of servicemen still missing in Indochina criticized the Republican-controlled Congress back in 1995 when President Clinton took steps to restoring relations between the once bitter enemies.
Khai’s visit this week has not prompted any of that opposition, in part because Vietnam is cooperating in the search for U.S. service members.
“I want to thank the prime minister for his government’s willingness to continue to work on finding the remains of those who lost their lives in Vietnam,” Bush said after the meeting Tuesday. “It’s very comforting to many families here in America to understand that the government is providing information to help close a sad chapter in their lives.”
Also Tuesday, officials from the two countries will sign an agreement at the State Department to cooperate on adoptions.
After Washington, Khai is to travel to Massachusetts, where he will visit the presidents of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.