U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday headed for his first visit to Vietnam, a trip aimed at sealing the transformation of an old enemy into a new partner to help counter China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
Four decades after the Vietnam War, Obama – the first U.S. leader to come of age after a conflict that bitterly divided America – will seek to deepen defense and economic ties with the country’s communist government while also prodding them on human rights, aides say.
Pressure has mounted for Obama to use his landmark visit, which begins on Monday, to roll back a 32-year-old arms embargo on Hanoi, one of the last vestiges of wartime animosity.
Lifting the ban – something Vietnam has long sought – would anger Beijing, which resents U.S. efforts to forge stronger military bonds with its smaller neighbors at a time of rising tensions in the disputed South China Sea. But there was no immediate word of a final U.S. decision on the issue.
Vietnam’s poor human rights record remains a possible sticking point, but the Obama administration appears increasingly swayed toward giving Hanoi some leeway to build its deterrent against China.
“Nobody has any illusions,” said Evan Medeiros, Obama’s former top Asia adviser. “This trip sends important signals to China about U.S. activism in the region and growing U.S. concern about Chinese behavior.”
Closer military cooperation with allies and partners has been a major thrust of Obama’s strategic “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific region, a centerpiece of his foreign policy.
Obama’s Vietnam visit comes just days after Chinese fighter jets carried out what the Pentagon said was an “unsafe” intercept of a U.S. military reconnaissance plane in the South China Sea. Beijing is pursuing territorial claims there that conflict with those of Vietnam and several other countries.