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The U.S. President Barack Obama and the chief of the Vietnam’s Communist Party met on Tuesday at the White House at a historic meeting to discuss the threat China is imposing with the activities in the South China Sea, as well as human rights issues and strengthening the ties between the countries.

Obama and Nguyen Phu Trong met in the Oval office for a discussion about human rights differences and religious freedom, the new Trans-Pacific trade partnership agreement in the region and the significant progress made by the two countries cooperating on education, climate change, security and public health.

The meeting took place this month because it marks 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War, but also because of the year long dispute between China and Vietnam, due to China challenging Vietnam’s sovereignty with parking an oil rig on territorial waters of Vietnam.

The Obama administration has seized the opportunity to act as a diplomatic mediator of the conflict and make regular navigation flights over the region in accordance with international law. However, the latest reclamation of islands and continuous man-made islands in the South China Sea by China has triggered an alarm in neighboring countries of the Southeast Asia region. Countries like Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia have claims on parts of the South China Sea, something that China does not take into consideration and continues to claim that the South China Sea is historically and traditionally a part of China. The dispute also involves the recent aggressive stance of China with deploying military equipment to the disputed Spartly Islands, a territory claimed by Vietnam.

According to Reuters, Obama said that this disputes must be resolved under international rules and stated that in order to “ensure that the prosperity and freedom of navigation that has underwritten the enormous economic growth that’s taken place in the region continues in decades to come. Trong, has also expressed concerns because of the South China Sea dispute and stated that “the recent activities that are not in accordance with international law that may complicate the situation.”

The two leaders also discussed the topics of human rights and the difference of their countries political systems and political philosophy. According to Reuters, Obama said that “There continue to be significant differences in political philosophy between our two countries” and added that diplomacy will be very helpful in overcoming these differences. Vietnam’s leader agreed to this claims and said that “We have been transformed from former enemies to become friends, partners and comprehensive partners. And I’m convinced that our relationship will continue to grow in the future.”

While the meeting took place at the White House, a group of demonstrators outside the White House, protested against the human rights violations in Vietnam and called for liberty for all political and religious prisoners.

Obama deemed the talks as very candid and has accepted the invitation of the Communist Party’s leader to visit Vietnam. A date for the visit has not yet been announced. This landmark meeting is marking 20 years of mutual engagement between the former enemies and demonstrates the first ever meeting of this kind after the normalization of relations two decades ago.

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