HANOI (Reuters) - Vietnam's Communist Party chief will visit the United States this year, Washington's ambassador said on Friday, in a landmark trip underlining a rapid strengthening of ties between former foes still at odds over human rights.
Nguyen Phu Trong would be the first party general secretary to visit the United States, which will also receive Vietnam's Minister of Public Security, who oversees a police force condemned widely for human rights abuses and suppression of government critics.
Their trips will come amid recent advancements in ties between two countries that fought a bloody war four decades ago and are currently marking 20 years since normalizing relations.
"Regular high-level visits help both sides understand and grow more comfortable with each other," U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius said in a speech at a Hanoi university.
"And this mutual understanding is turning talk into action."
U.S. engagement went into a new gear in the middle of last year with a flurry of high-level visits to Vietnam that coincided with Hanoi's maritime territorial row with communist neighbor China, with which it shares crucial but testy ties.
The United States has been pouring in aid and assistance to Vietnam in health, education, landmines clearance, scholarships and nuclear energy. More recently, activities involving their armed forces have stepped up.
Defense cooperation was previously limited by a lethal arms embargo, which Washington started to ease in October, enabling humanitarian exercises between both militaries late last year.
Analysts say Vietnam's interests are in diversifying its ties beyond China, while the United States wants to court a new ally in Hanoi as part of its moves to strengthen its influence in Asia as a counterbalance to Beijing's rise.
Osius said it was understandable Vietnam would look to its "historic partners", but the United States would play its part.
"Vietnam should have many friends, especially in a region as complex and dynamic as this one. However, the United States has much to offer...to enhance Vietnam's security in the short, medium and long term."
Vietnam's human rights record has been a sticking point, however, with the United States among Western powers critical of its arrests, jailing and harassment of political bloggers, protesters and activists. Though some have been released, scores remain in detention and arrests continue.
"Our relationship can only reach its fullest potential if there's demonstrable progress on human rights," Osius added.
Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie