HANOI — From the busy street stalls around Hoan Kiem Lake to the grand French Colonial-style Metropole Hotel, Vietnam’s capital is displaying its trademark hustle and bustle in the run-up to President Obama’s landmark three-day visit that starts Monday.
While Vietnam, a war-hardened nation, can’t choose its neighbors, it can certainly choose its friends. Once-implacable foes burdened by a bloody and tragic history, Washington and Hanoi increasingly share overlapping strategic interests that could redirect the trajectory of security cooperation in the contested South China Sea.
In his final six months in office, analysts say, Mr. Obama intends to make clear that Vietnam is a centerpiece of his administration’s Asia-Pacific “pivot,” including a trip here as part of his visit to attend the G-7 summit in Japan — his eighth and last as president — that starts May 26.
Never mind that Vietnam’s leadership may feel some frustration since they have been relegated to his last year in office. More fundamentally, the White House recognizes that this trip is Mr. Obama’s last opportunity to shine a light on a much discussed but long delayed priority — a shift of American focus from the chaotic Middle East to what is both the world’s most dynamic economic region and one on course to be the next featured arena for great-power competition.
Two decades after trade normalization, the U.S. and Vietnam are now drawn closer together due to China’s economic and geopolitical rise, and, in particular, Beijing’s increasingly assertive claims to the South China Sea. One measure of the growing closeness: Vietnamese press outlets report that the U.S. delegation, including the president’s advisers, security teams and representatives of private business groups, will total more than 1,000.
From a visitor’s first arrival at Noi Bai international airport, the signs of American influence are everywhere. Just outside the capital, where American B-52s once launched the largest bombing strikes, is the site of a new Ford car factory. Nearby are towering billboards promoting Nike — one of the largest employers in the country. Mr. Obama’s hosts will also be giving him a state dinner during his stay.
While trade, security and human rights may dominate the formal agenda for talks, there is rising speculation on Capitol Hill and among senior U.S. defense officials that Mr. Obama may offer a complete rollback of a decades-old U.S. arms embargo, one of the last vestiges of the Vietnam War era.
Maryland Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said in an email that he had “expressed to the administration that we must take care to ensure any potential arms sales are appropriate to our bilateral relationship and would support regional stability.”
A potential offer to ease or repeal the embargo may be matched by a response from Hanoi to a U.S. Navy request for greater access to Cam Ranh Bay, a key outpost for the U.S. military during the Vietnam War that now could provide crucial access in the event of a crisis in the South China Sea.
Despite the continuing violence in the Middle East and the uncertainty brought on by the U.S. presidential fight, Mr. Obama and his team are said to be keen to reassure Asia Pacific nations — Vietnam chief among them — that the U.S. will maintain its commitments to the region. That includes deployment of up to 60 percent of the U.S. Navy fleet.
Like other countries in the region, Vietnam is seeking Washington’s reassurance that it will balance China’s militarization in the South China Sea.
The Communist Party of Vietnam, during its 12th National Congress held in January, selected incumbent General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, instead of the reformer Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, to lead the party. Also, former public security chief Tran Dai Quang was installed as president. This proves worrisome for many in the West who sense it may signal a more authoritative turn with fewer freedoms.
But Phuc Huu Hoang, a member of the National Assembly, insisted that “there is no way that Vietnam will slow down economic and political reform, nor stop its own pivot to America and turn to China.”
China vs. U.S.
China’s economic clout and growing soft power represent an attraction, but talks with officials here make clear that Vietnam’s party leadership prefers to maintain its independence and does not wish to be in any nation’s orbit, whether that be China or the United States. Hanoi has eagerly sought U.S. investments and has signed on to Mr. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — one that pointedly does not include China — even though the TPP calls for more reforms, especially in state-owned enterprises, transparency and human rights.
Pentagon chief Ashton Carter and his advisers are seeking greater cooperation from Vietnam as they have accelerated the number of noncombat exercises at a time of escalating tension in the region. China’s construction of islands on top of reefs, placement of advanced radar systems in the Spratlys and surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets in the Paracel Islands has advanced and deepened U.S.-Vietnam military cooperation.
After the Chinese placement in May 2014 of an oil rig by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) in what Vietnam said was its exclusive economic zone, the Obama administration, in a symbolic gesture, eased the arms embargo, allowing Hanoi to purchase American-made Coast Guard patrol vessels, a move backed by Republican Senate Committee on Armed Services Chairman John McCain.
Hanoi has used the South China Sea sovereignty disputes to urge closer military ties with the U.S.
“Vietnam calls on the U.S. to totally lift the arms embargo on Vietnam and believe that this element of barrier of the past should be removed to reflect the full normalization of our relations started two decades ago and the current level of our comprehensive partnership,” Amb. Pham Quang Vinh said last month in a speech in Texas.
And in a recent U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing, where maps were displayed revealing how Chinese fighters could potentially strike throughout the South China Sea, the northern Philippines and Vietnam, Mr. Carter said he backed lifting the arms embargo and in stepping up defense trade. U.S. forces are already providing assistance to build up the capacity of Vietnam’s maritime law enforcement agencies, the Coast Guard and the Vietnam Fishery Surveillance Force.
“Defense and security ties between the U.S. and Vietnam have grown as a result of a convergence of interests on territorial disputes in the South China Sea,” said Carlyle A. Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy.
But Vietnam’s authoritarian government and its spotty human rights record remain stumbling blocks to more robust ties.
“One of the United States’ top demands is for Vietnam to improve the human rights environment. The situation has improved a great deal over the past decade, but Washington estimates there are still about 100 bloggers and democracy activists under detention,” said Murray Hiebert, senior fellow and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.