US Barack Obama touched ground in Vietnam Sunday for a landmark visit capping two decades of rapprochement between the former wartime foes, as both countries look to push trade and check Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Air Force One touched down in Hanoi just after 9:30 pm (1430 GMT) for the beginning of a three-day trip in which Obama will meet Vietnam’s communist leadership and stress improving relations with the dynamic and rapidly emerging nation.
For many Americans, Vietnam remains a painful byword for slaughter and folly since hostilities in the decade-long ruinous war between the two nations finally ended in 1975.
Yet few countries have seen such a dramatic turnaround in their relations since Obama’s Democrat predecessor Bill Clinton normalised relations and later became the first post-war president to visit Vietnam in 2000.
The Obama administration now sees the country as a vital plank in America’s much-vaunted pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.
Vietnam’s leadership hope to strengthen ties with the world’s most powerful nation, particularly as it chafes with China over disputed waters.
“There always is an element of distrust in some sectors of Vietnam’s elite, the political structure,” said Murray Hiebert of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“But China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea has really sharpened the Vietnamese mind and prompted Vietnam to probably move faster with the US than it might have otherwise.”
On Monday morning Obama will meet the country’s president, its prime minister and the country’s de facto leader Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party.
Trong and Obama met last July, when he was given a prestigious Oval Office meeting.
A major talking point will be the lifting of a US arms embargo, a last vestige of the decade-long war between the two nations.
Advocates argue an embargo lift is vital to helping Vietnam improve coastal defences and bolster its outdated, largely Russian-origin military equipment to better counter Beijing.
But weighing against it are concerns about communist-ruled Vietnam’s still dismal human rights record, an issue Obama is likely to address when he delivers a speech in Hanoi.
US diplomats have pressed for the release of political prisoners as a sign that Vietnam can be trusted with advanced weaponry.
Prominent dissident Father Nguyen Van Ly, a Catholic priest who has spent much of the last two decades in jail, was released on Friday.
But the one-party state still ruthlessly cracks down on protests, jails dissidents and bans trade unions.
Hours before Obama’s arrival the limited extent of one-party Vietnam’s democratic progress was on full display, as authorities held a nationwide parliamentary election on Sunday where independent candidates were barred.
Critics of the election say they were beaten and placed under house arrest in the weeks leading up to the vote.
Increased trade ties will also feature prominently during the trip, with Obama keen to make the case for a trans-Pacific trade deal that faces an uncertain future.
On Tuesday afternoon Obama will fly to Ho Chi Minh City, the southern Vietnamese metropolis formerly known as Saigon which, in the 40 years since American troops hastily beat a retreat, has transformed itself into the country’s thriving commercial heart.
Michael Froman, US Trade Representative, said America was keen to tap into Vietnam’s middle class, a demographic expected to double between 2014 and 2020.
“As middle-class consumers emerge, they want more of everything that the United States is well-positioned to make and to export. But we face significant barriers to those exports,” he said.
Examples he gave were a 70 percent tariff on auto exports, a 34 percent tariff on beef products and a 59 percent tariff on machinery parts — all barriers that the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Vietnam has signed up to, aims to eliminate.
American officials meanwhile stress the TPP will force Vietnam to make positive reforms, such as bringing in better environmental and child labour protection measures as well as allowing independent unions.
Sandy Pho, a regional expert at the Wilson Center, said Obama must “execute a delicate diplomatic dance” while in Vietnam to avoid alienating China.
“He will need to take care not to introduce new tensions in America’s complex yet essential relationship with China,” she said.
Obama is the third post-war president to visit Vietnam after Clinton and George W Bush in 2006. After Vietnam he will fly to Japan for a trip that will include both a G7 summit and a visit to Hiroshima.