With both countries’ touchy relations with China in mind, the U.S. and Vietnam have the chance to put aside some of their old hostilities and create a partnership that seemed unlikely even three years ago.
HANOI, Vietnam — When Bill Clinton landed in Hanoi 16 years ago, the first U.S. president to visit since the end of the Vietnam War, his mission was to put that conflict behind the two nations, and the trip was among the most remarkable of his presidency.
When President Obama arrives early Monday, his task may be a bit less dramatic, but in many ways is far more ambitious. The two countries, bedeviled by decades of misunderstandings, violence and wariness, have the chance to create a partnership that seemed unlikely even three years ago.
Since then, China’s expansion in the South China Sea has shaken a new Vietnamese government. While the Vietnamese leadership has not let up on its repression of its people — the police have beaten protesters in demonstrations over an environmental disaster — it appears more interested in playing one superpower off against the other, perhaps even giving the Pentagon some rotating access to key Vietnamese ports.
Presidential foreign travel
Given the expected itinerary for the rest of his presidency, President Obama will have traveled to a total of 57 countries. Vietnam, Laos and Peru will add to the 54 he’s already visited. That will leave him short of his two predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. A closer look:
Number of countries visited:
Barack Obama: 54 (through May 1)
George W. Bush: 74 (8 years)
Bill Clinton: 74 (8 years)
Number of days spent on foreign trips:
Barack Obama: 174
George W. Bush: 216
Bill Clinton: 234
State Department, White House
It would not be an alliance; neither side seems ready for that. But it could throw China off balance in the daily shadowboxing over who will dominate one of the world’s most strategically vital waterways.
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“It does show how history can work in unpredictable ways,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national-security adviser who spent time in the past two years luring Myanmar out of its shell. “Even the worst conflicts can be relatively quickly left behind.”
In much of Asia, Obama’s strategy of focusing on the region remains more a slogan than an operational plan. He’s been drawn back into Middle East conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. But in this part of Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam, he seems on the verge of the kind of progress Clinton could only imagine during his visit, only 10 months before the Sept. 11 attacks changed U.S. priorities.
Slurping noodles in a shop in Ho Chi Minh City at the end of that trip, Clinton wondered aloud whether the Communist leaders in Vietnam were really willing to turn away from their traditional link to China. It turned out they were not.
But now the Chinese, who hindered U.S. efforts during the Vietnam War, are making things easier for the United States. For years, the Communist Party leadership in Vietnam, headed by Nguyen Phu Trong, ignored Chinese activity off the country’s coast even as its nationalistic population became increasingly alarmed. But in 2014, China placed a deep-sea drilling rig to explore for oil and gas right off Vietnam, and Trong, the party’s general secretary, could not even get his phone calls to Beijing returned.
He registered his protest by visiting Obama in the Oval Office last year, an unsubtle signal to the Chinese that Vietnam has other options. But with a military leadership still full of veterans of the American War, as it is known in Vietnam, the warming of ties has proceeded at a deliberate pace.
Before Obama’s visit, a parade of U.S. officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Daniel Russel, the State Department’s most senior Asia hand, have been showing up in Hanoi. Their goal has been to get enough human-rights guarantees from the Vietnamese to allow for the lifting of sanctions on arms sales to Vietnam and perhaps the return of U.S. military units to its shores for the first time since the chaotic helicopter evacuation from Saigon that is seared in American memory.
Before Obama left on the trip Saturday, Vietnam granted early release from prison to a Roman Catholic priest who is one of its most prominent dissidents. The move was widely viewed as a goodwill gesture in honor of Obama’s visit.
The Catholic archdiocese of the central city of Hue reported on its Web page that it welcomed the return Friday of the Rev. Nguyen Van Ly from prison. Ly, 70, has served several long terms in prison or under house arrest for promoting political and religious freedoms in the communist nation.
For Obama, the trip has its political sensitivities. On the campaign trail, Republicans will almost certainly cast it as another stop on an eight-year-long “apology tour.” During his visit in November 2006, President George W. Bush avoided any notion of an apology, in part by avoiding most Vietnamese. His attention was focused on the Iraq war, then in its worst phase, and the trip was overshadowed by questions of whether the United States was entering another quagmire. (“We’ll succeed unless we quit,” Bush said when pressed on the comparisons.)
Obama has made clear that pragmatism outweighs other factors when it comes to maneuvering around China. From a practical viewpoint, a decision to lift the arms embargo against Vietnam would have minimal effects — the Vietnamese military still likes Russia’s rock-bottom prices for arms — but it would be symbolically important.
“The delicate balance is that we need to have both a constructive relationship with China and the ability to be firm on some issues,” Rhodes said in an interview.
Then there is the question of the reception Obama will receive. He is more popular here and in Europe than he is at home. His aides are clearly hoping for a welcome more like the one Clinton received in November 2000. Clinton spoke to students, took in the sights, went shopping and spent hours in a rice field outside Hanoi, sifting the dirt for the remains of a downed American pilot alongside the pilot’s sons, who had accompanied the president.
Obama’s schedule is very light on the war, and very focused on the future. After meetings Monday with the country’s leadership, he will spend Tuesday with dissidents and then deliver a speech. Then he will head to Ho Chi Minh City, landing at the airport that was once the hub of the U.S. military effort, and will meet with entrepreneurs.
On Wednesday, Obama will hold a forum with members of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, a signature effort of his to strengthen ties with the remarkably young population throughout the region.
From Vietnam he will head to Japan for a summit of the Group of Seven industrialized nations and a historic visit to Hiroshima.
Obama’s final year in office is heavy on foreign travel as he conducts what amounts to a long, global farewell tour. He’s already made a historic trip to Cuba and visited Saudi Arabia, Germany and Britain. He’s due to make a day trip to Canada in June, attend a NATO summit in Poland in July and is expected in the fall to become the first president to visit Laos. He also is to attend a fall summit of the Group of 20 industrial and emerging-market nations in China and an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru in November.