Vietnam Communist Party chief to meet Obama on landmark U.S. trip

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Vietnam's Communist Party chief will visit the United States next week in a landmark trip that could prove pivotal in Washington's bid to bolster its in the back yard of an increasingly assertive China.

Nguyen Phu Trong will meet U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House as the former war enemies mark two decades of calibrated engagement since the normalization of ties that have expanded rapidly in the past year.

That meeting would skirt protocol because party boss Trong is not part of a government, but a senior state department official said Obama saw the visit as crucial and was expecting a "very big picture conversation".

"He is the top guy... It's a pretty big event," the official told reporters.

"There was a broad agreement that it made sense to treat him and treat the visit as the visit of the top leader of the country.

"We don't view the meeting as a reward for the Vietnamese. We view it much more as continuing engagement."

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Vietnam's Communist leader Nguyen Phu Trong
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Vietnam Communist Party chief to meet Obama on landmark U.S. trip
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (L) shakes hands with Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong as they meet at the party headquarters in Hanoi on June 1, 2015. Carter is on an Asian trip to Singapore, Vietnam and India in his second tour of the region since taking over at the Pentagon in February. AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (L) speaks with Vietnam Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong at the party headquarters in Hanoi on June 1, 2015. Carter is on an Asian trip to Singapore, Vietnam and India in his second tour of the region since taking over at the Pentagon in February. AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Vietnam Communist Party's Secretary Genral Nguyen Phu Trong (2nd L), President Truong Tan Sang (C), Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (1st R) and National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung walk toward the Parliament House after they paid respect to late president Ho Chi Minh, founder of today's Vietnam at his mausoleum (background) prior to the opening of the summer session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on May 20, 2015. The deputies began their 5-week-long summer session. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (L) shakes hands with Vietnam Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong as they meet at the party headquarters in Hanoi on June 1, 2015. Carter is on an Asian trip to Singapore, Vietnam and India in his second tour of the region since taking over at the Pentagon in February. AFP PHOTO / POOL / HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Nguyen Phu Trong (R on screen), Communist Party Chief and Nguyen Tan Dung (L on screen), listen to Nguyen Sinh Hung, Chairman of the National Assembly, delivering the opening speech at the opening of the summer session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on May 20, 2015. The deputies began their 5-week-long summer session. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong ( L), former Communist Party Chief Nong Duc Manh (C) and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung wave flags while watching a parade marking the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon (former name of Ho Chi Minh City) in Ho Chi Minh City on April 30, 2015. Vietnam marked the 40th anniversary of Saigon's fall with a huge military parade to celebrate the moment communist forces ended a decades-long conflict and delivered a painful blow to American morale and miliary prestige. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong delivers a speech at an official meeting on the eve of the party's 85th foundation anniversary in Hanoi on February 2, 2015. The ruling Communist Party was founded on February 3, 1930 by the late president Ho Chi Minh. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH NAM (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Nguyen Phu Trong (L), Communist Party Chief, talks with Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh during a break at the opening ceremony of the summer session of the National Assembly in Hanoi on May 20, 2015. The deputies began their 5-week-long summer session. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Vietnam Communist Party's Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong (C) arrives at the National Convention Center to attend an official meeting marking the 70th anniversary of the Vietnam People's Army in Hanoi on December 20, 2014. The Vietnam People's Army (VPA) was founded on December 22, 1944. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Vietnam's top leaders including Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong (3rd L), President Truong Tan Sang (3rd R), Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (2nd L), and National Assembly's Chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung (R) move to take their seats on a podium prior to a parade marking the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon (former name of Ho Chi Minh City) in Ho Chi Minh City on April 30, 2015 . Vietnam marked the 40th anniversary of Saigon's fall with a huge military parade to celebrate the moment communist forces ended a decades-long conflict and delivered a painful blow to American morale and military prestige. AFP PHOTO / HOANG DINH Nam (Photo credit should read HOANG DINH NAM/AFP/Getty Images)
In the front row from left to right are Communist Party Chief Nguyen Phu Trong, President Truong Tan Sang and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, wait to pay respect to late President Ho Chi Minh at his Mausoleum before the opening of a National Assembly session in Hanoi, Vietnam on Wednesday May 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Tran Van Minh)
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The July 6-10 trip follows a year-long charm offensive by the United States launched as a fierce row over sovereignty erupted in May 2014 between communist neighbors Vietnam and China, which saw relations sink to their worst in three decades.

Washington capitalized, shifting gear in its diplomacy after China parked an oil rig unannounced in what Vietnam considers its domain.

"The relationship with Vietnam has moved to a very different place and part of that has been actually energized by China's actions," Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said last week.

"We now have more countries in Southeast Asia looking to the United States and striking stronger relationships with us than we've ever had, less because of what we've done than because of what China has done."

LINGERING SUSPICION

A lot is riding on a visit that the United States hopes will build more trust. Experts say progressives in Vietnam favor closer U.S. ties, but suspicion lingers among conservatives about Washington's end-game.

The United States has been courting the communist leadership with visits to Vietnam by some of the biggest names in Washington: top General Martin Dempsey, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Senator John McCain, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and several legislators.

Former President Bill Clinton met Trong, 71, on Thursday and was guest at an Independence Day celebration in Hanoi, where he described the 1995 normalization of ties as "one of the most important achievements of my presidency."

A lot has changed since.

Vietnam is Southeast Asia's biggest exporter to the United States, with which it shares annual trade of $35 billion. Both countries are among 12 negotiating a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) accord covering combined GDP of $28 trillion.

A lethal arms embargo on Vietnam was eased in October, allowing joint military exercises and $18 million in loans for U.S. patrol boats. It also allowed consultations on defense procurement, as Hanoi seeks to build up a deterrent to counter Beijing's expansionism in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has been speaking to Western defense companies, including U.S. firms LockheedMartin Corp and Boeing, according to informed sources.

But scope for deals could be limited until the embargo is fully lifted. Washington says that requires greater improvements in Vietnam's human rights record.

Ernest Bower, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Trong's visit was "historic and timely" and aimed to break down trust barriers.

"The two countries ... are about to enter a new era of deeper cooperation in areas such as security, political and diplomatic alignment," he said.

"The countries' political leaders must develop a level of trust and mutual respect. That is what this visit is about."

(Additional reporting Idrees Ali in Washington and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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