HANOI/WASHINGTON – Dwarfed by its communist neighbor and still bearing the scars of a war with the U.S. four decades ago, Vietnam has become a focal point of the race between the two powers for influence in the western Pacific.
The tussle over Vietnam will be on display in a three-day visit this week by President Barack Obama. The third sitting U.S. president to travel to the country since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Obama was expected to meet with the regime’s top leaders Monday.
The trip to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is part of U.S. efforts to preserve clout as China expands its economic and military influence across Asia and argues with countries like Vietnam over territory in the South China Sea. For its part, Vietnam will seek the full lifting of a U.S. weapons sales ban, more aid to clean up a dioxin used as a defoliant during the war and unexploded ordnance, and reassurances a U.S.-led Pacific trade pact will make it through Congress.
“There is a new mood in Vietnam in how it looks at America,” said Nguyen Manh Hung, professor emeritus at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “It is less suspicious. His visit is very important to the Vietnamese for symbolic reasons.”
Obama’s visit comes 21 years after former President Bill Clinton normalized ties with Vietnam, and a few months after the U.S., Vietnam and 10 other nations signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a sweeping trade deal whose fate remains unclear amid criticism of the pact in the U.S. Senate and from presidential candidates. Vietnam, whose economy grew 6.68 percent last year, the most since 2008, seeks increased trade with the U.S. through the TPP to boost exports and reduce its economic dependence on China.
“When you look at Southeast Asia and what relationships where we’ve seen the most progress occur, Vietnam is really at the top of that list,” said Meredith Miller, vice president of Albright Stonebridge Group and a former official at the State Department’s Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs. “What they can hope to hear from President Obama is that he’s doing absolutely everything in his power to see the agreement approved in a lame duck session before the next administration takes office.”
They may be communist neighbors, but Vietnam and China have a long history of tensions.
The countries fought a brief border war in 1979 and relations ruptured in the summer of 2014 after a Chinese oil rig was placed off Vietnam’s coast in the disputed Paracel Islands. China, Vietnam’s largest trading partner, has also angered Hanoi by flying planes to a new airstrip on islands it reclaimed in the disputed Spratly archipelago.
The U.S., which is not a claimant in the South China Sea, has criticized China’s actions over territory. An arbitration court in the Hague is set to decide on a Philippine challenge to China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, probably by midyear, even as China declines to take part in that case.
Vietnam says it welcomes the U.S. presence in the region, though it is careful not to be pulled too far into its orbit. It still wants ties with its powerful neighbor and to avoid outside interference in its political system, said Hung, who describes U.S.-Vietnam relations as a “hesitant tango.”
Vietnamese leaders have long pushed for a full lifting of the weapons ban and Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last month he supported eliminating limits on lethal weapons sales. The U.S. partially lifted its embargo in 2014 and has hosted two defense contractor symposiums in Hanoi, the most recent May 11-13, which was attended by companies such as Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
“We have not finalized a decision with regards to this issue,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser at the White House, said during a call with reporters. “We fully expect it will be a subject of discussion.”
Advocates of lifting the arms embargo argue it is vital to help Vietnam improve coastal defenses and bolster it militarily vis-a-vis Beijing.
“Vietnam wants and needs to steadily pursue military modernization, and it values U.S. military technology as a potential source of strategic leverage,” said Murray Hiebert of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Not only does Vietnam need to build an effective deterrent force in the face of China’s aggressiveness … it also prefers to gradually reduce its overreliance on Russian-made systems.”
The U.S. is already providing Vietnam with six patrol boats, part of an $18 million military aid package. But conditions remain that could hinder efforts to sell weapons systems to Vietnam, whose human rights record has been criticized by members of Congress, said Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. More than 100 dissidents are detained in Vietnam, according to Human Rights Watch.
While Vietnam is changing, political reforms have not kept pace with economic reforms.
Any challenge to the Communist Party’s primacy, or its leaders’ economic interests, is met with an iron fist.
“Critics, including some who support the upward trajectory of U.S.-Vietnam relations in general, have honed in on the need for more progress on human rights prior to any decision,” said Hiebert.
Obama’s trip to Vietnam, his 10th to Asia, will include a speech on U.S.-Vietnam relations in Hanoi and talks with government’s leaders on human rights and economic and security cooperation.
The president should insist that all political prisoners are released from prison “and allowed to live free from government harassment in their own country,” Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, said in a statement.
The day before Obama left for Hanoi, the government released Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest and dissident who has spent much of the past two decades in prison and who was on the rights group’s list of political prisoners. His release was announced by the archdiocese of Hue.
Obama’s visit coincides with a rise in dissent, and rare public protests, in the country. Vietnamese in recent weeks have taken to the streets in their thousands over the deaths of millions of fish near Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Corp., a unit of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Corp. located in central Vietnam.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc ordered an investigation into how the steel plant received approval to pipe waste water directly into the sea.
Police used force to break up demonstrations on May 8, and will be under pressure to ensure there is no violence when Obama is there, said Le Hong Hiep, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. The government also held its once-in-five-years National Assembly election for 500 seats on Sunday, and is “determined to prevent hostile and reactionary forces from damaging the election,” according to a statement on the parliament’s website.
“The protesters will take this opportunity to publicize their cause and send a message to the U.S.,” Hiep said. “The Vietnamese government has different tactics they can use — block Facebook, occupy public venues to block demonstrations.”
Still, the U.S. administration will be seeking ways to build ties without the overhang of tensions over human rights.
“The impression in Washington is that Vietnam takes a very strategic view toward the region,” said Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney. “Washington sees Hanoi as a capable partner. ”
Vietnam’s economy is growing rapidly but more reforms are needed, Wally Adeyemo, White House deputy national security adviser for international economics, said in an interview:
“Having the president going to Vietnam at this point gives him the ability to go there and celebrate the progress they’ve made, but also push them to make additional progress in terms of opening up their economy to foreign direct investment, reforming their SOEs (state-owned enterprises), providing for the education of their populace.”