President Obama on Monday began his weeklong trip to Asia in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, where he will spend three days before visiting Japan, as he aims to cement a renewed cooperation with two of the U.S.'s biggest former wartime adversaries and counteract China’s growing assertiveness in the region.
The visit, part of Obama’s “farewell tour” as he prepares to leave office later this year, is his 10th trip to Asia during his eight-year term and a furtherance of his strategy to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy toward the continent.
“President Obama is looking towards the future and ensuring that his policy of rebalance to Asia leaves a positive legacy,” Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and author of Vietnam Since 1975, tells TIME via email.
The President is set to meet with the Vietnamese government leadership, including the country’s de facto head, Communist Party general secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, as he pushes for greater economic and strategic ties between the two nations. In Japan, Obama will attend a summit of the G-7 industrial nations that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe currently chairs.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Obama lifted a long-standing U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam.
In a press conference Monday, the U.S. leader announced that his government was opting to end a ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam that had been in place for over four decades.
“Over time what we’ve seen is a progressive deepening and broadening of the [bilateral] relationship,” Obama said. “And what became apparent to me and my administration at this point was … that it was appropriate for us not to have a blanket, across-the-board ban.”
Obama is the third U.S. President to visit the Southeast Asian nation since the end of the decade-long Vietnam War in 1975, with his predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush doing so in 2000 and 2006 respectively. Although Clinton resumed diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese government in 1995, the U.S. embargo on the sale of weapons still persisted.
Obama partially lifted the ban two years ago to allow Vietnam to purchase naval-defense equipment, but there had been increasing calls from both sides to do away with it entirely.
“The lifting of the arms embargo gives Vietnam some leverage in dealing with China,” Thayer says. “Vietnam will be drawn into a very special regional club that includes U.S. allies and strategic partners.”
2. Concerns over Vietnam’s human-rights record remain.
Some supporters of the arms embargo have cited Vietnam’s poor treatment of its citizens as one of the primary reasons not to lift the ban. The country’s communist government routinely jails dissenters, cracks down on the media and quashes protests. Obama addressed the issue of human rights Monday by calling it one of the “areas where our two governments disagree.” He added that the U.S. respects Vietnam’s sovereignty and will not try to “impose” a democratic system on the country.
“At the same time, we will continue to speak out on behalf of human rights that we believe are universal, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, and that includes the right of civil society to organize and help improve their communities in their country,” he said.
Hanoi appears to be making some effort to mitigate these concerns, having reportedly released a Catholic priest who was one of its most high-profile political prisoners two days before Obama landed. It has also expressed a commitment to the U.S. requirement of allowing independent labor unions as part of its signature of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the international trade alliance, in part, aimed at counterbalancing China’s growing power.
3. China is not happy about the deepening U.S.-Vietnam relationship.
The Chinese leadership has long resented the U.S. presence in the South China Sea — a region it considers its sovereign territory despite claims by Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Vietnam — and has accused the Obama Administration of “militarizing” the expansive water body and key international trade route.
That line of thinking was reinforced last week ahead of Obama’s visit, when Xu Bu, China’s ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) accused the U.S. of turning the South China Sea into a “disturbing regional hot spot” in an op-ed for Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper.
According to Xu, U.S. officials have “repeatedly made irresponsible remarks” about China’s presence in the region and “gone even further to drive wedges between China and Southeast Asian countries.”
Thayer says the U.S. and Vietnam have a “growing convergence of strategic interests” to challenge China’s dominance.
“Vietnam does not want to ally with the United States against China,” he says, “but Vietnam would like to see the U.S. do the heavy lifting to counterbalance China’s military power.”
Obama specifically referenced the region in his speech, saying “the United States and Vietnam are united in our support for a regional order, including in the South China Sea,” even as he denied the decision to lift the arms embargo was prompted by considerations of China.
4. Obama will visit Hiroshima, but won’t apologize.
The most anticipated event on the trip, however, is his stop in Hiroshima, where, in 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb, killing more than 100,000 people. Obama is the first U.S. President to visit the city, where the incident remains a point of resentment and contention among the Japanese people.
Obama said he would not apologize for the U.S. actions seven decades ago, however, with Reuters quoting him as saying in an interview with Japanese state media that “it’s important to recognize that in the midst of war, leaders make all kinds of decisions.”
The primary goal of the visit, he said, is to “reflect on the nature of war” and the suffering it engenders. “I think it is also a happy story about how former adversaries came together to become one of the closest partnerships and closest allies in the world.”