Obama wrestles history on symbolic Vietnam, Japan trip
This includes a somber pilgrimage to Hiroshima, site of the world’s first nuclear attack.
This will be the tenth trip to Asia by America’s self-declared “Pacific President,” who unapologetically sees America’s future tethered to the region.
But even with regional allies Japan and Vietnam, the blood and pain of the 20th century still echo.
In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Obama will stress improving relations with a dynamic and rapidly emerging country, but one which, for most Americans, remains a by-word for slaughter and folly.
A major talking point will be the lifting of a US arms embargo, a last vestige of a war that ended in 1975.
In Japan, Obama will attend a G7 summit and make history by becoming the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, where his predecessor Harry Truman dropped the world’s first atomic bomb in 1945.
– Nod to history –
The trip to Hiroshima has inevitably stirred debate about whether Truman’s epoch-making decision was just.
Many Americans believe that while it killed about 140,000 Japanese, bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki avoided an even bloodier ground invasion of Japan.
Victims of the bombings have called for an apology, which the White House says it is not willing to give.
Obama “believes it’s important to acknowledge history, it’s important to look squarely at history, it’s important to have a dialogue about history,” said close Obama foreign policy aide Ben Rhodes.
Obama will begin his visit on Monday in Hanoi, the seat of Vietnam’s Communist-ruled government.
He will meet the president, prime minister, leader of the national assembly and the country’s de facto leader Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party.
Trong and Obama met back in July, when the Vietnamese leader was given a prestigious Oval Office meeting.
– US arms to Vietnam? –
Tense maritime disputes between Vietnam and its larger neighbor China are also likely to feature prominently in discussions.
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 US 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.”
But there are concerns about Vietnam’s ongoing political repression. 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 US-Vietnam relations in general, have honed in on the need for more progress on human rights prior to any decision,” said Hiebert.
US diplomats have pressed for the release of political prisoners as a sign that Hanoi can be trusted with advanced weaponry.
Obama is likely to address the issue of political freedoms when he delivers a speech in Hanoi, but he will also make the case for a trans-Pacific trade deal that faces an uncertain future.
Obama will also travel to Vietnam’s economic hub Ho Chi Minh City, the former capital of South Vietnam, to highlight the country’s growing commercial clout.
From there, he will travel to Ise-Shima for a G7 summit before going on to Hiroshima, a stop that until recently would have been too controversial to make.
“He is going because it’s possible now,” said Hugh Gusterson of George Washington University, “Twenty or 30 years (ago), you could not even go there.”
“Just the symbolism of going there as an American president was more than many Americans could bear.”
Obama is expected to visit the city’s Peace Memorial Park and make brief remarks that focus on denuclearization.
Obama came to office wanting to significantly reduce America’s strategic stockpile of nuclear weapons, but hesitated when Russia would not take reciprocal steps.
“We have a unique and moral responsibility as the only country that’s used a nuclear weapon to prevent the future use of nuclear weapons,” said Rhodes.