In the waning months of his presidency, Barack Obama seeks to redefine U.S. foreign policy, most recently in his embrace of one of the biggest phantoms of the Cold War battlefield: Vietnam.
This week, Obama has traveled throughout the Southeast Asian country with the goal of strengthening the current United States-Vietnam partnership. Most notable so far was his announcement that the ban on the sale of lethal arms to Vietnam, a strict measure that has been in place since the Vietnam War, would be coming to an end.
The decision follows increased tensions in the South China Sea. Many countries in the region fear China’s expanding military presence in the region, known for long-standing territorial disputes and plentiful deposits of oil and natural gas. Vietnam is especially wary of Chinese encroachment, and has received many complaints from civilian fishermen about theft and harassment from the Chinese Navy. Last month, they struck back and seized a Chinese fishing ship that was secretly transporting oil through Vietnamese waters.
While Obama stressed the necessity of a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea conflict, his lifting of the ban strengthens Vietnam’s position in the conflict.
At the same time, the commander-in-chief showed no qualms about criticizing Vietnam. During a speech in Hanoi, Obama criticized the nation’s poor record on human rights. According to the Human Rights Watch, the Communist Party in Vietnam restricts basic freedoms of speech and press, prevents underpaid workers from forming unions, and often uses torture in state correctional and rehabilitation facilities.
“Upholding these rights is not a threat to stability, but actually reinforces stability and is the foundation of progress,” said Obama. His words were particularly relevant due to the unexpected absence of six political activists scheduled to attend the event. The White House later confirmed that the Vietnamese government did bar the activists from entering, but did not provide any further explanation.
Obama is also set to visit Hiroshima, Japan in a few days’ time, as part of the 2017 G7 Summit. This makes Obama the first American president to visit Hiroshima, site of the first wartime atomic bombing in 1945. He has already said that he will not apologize for Hiroshima’s bombing, but that he is coming to the city in order to “reflect on the nature of war” and celebrate the alliance that Japan and the United States have forged since World War II. It’s a smart move, tying historical memory to present events instead of sweeping it under the carpet. Obama follows in the steps of Secretary of State John Kerry, who made a similar stop in Hiroshima back in April.
Obama is clearly hoping that Vietnam can become as reliable a partner as Japan. Of course, his visit is not the first sign of the former combatants burying the hatchet. After the United States lifted a trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994, trade between the two countries skyrocketed and normal diplomatic relations have carried on since.
However, these events mark a new chapter in the relationship. President Obama is using the United States’ complicated history with Vietnam not as a crutch, but rather as a launching pad for a stronger alliance. In drawing upon that shared past while encouraging greater democratization, Obama is raising up Vietnam as a capable ally that will remain long after he leaves office.