May 21, 2016
President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Vietnam starts on Monday.
His visit is expected to strengthen the growing economic and strategic relationship between the United States and Vietnam. The two sides were at war for more than 10 years.
The economic relationship between the two began growing in 1995, after the former enemies reestablished diplomatic ties.
Vietnam now has higher levels of exports to the U.S. than any other member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). And American exports to Vietnam have grown sharply.
Vietnam is one of the 12 countries that signed the U.S.-led Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This has given Vietnam a trade advantage over other Southeast Asia countries -- such as Indonesia and Thailand -- which did not sign the agreement.
Tuong Lai is a former aide to Vietnam’s prime minister. He said the “Trans Pacific Partnership is the key to helping Vietnam begin a new chapter and move away from China’s orbit.”
But some members of the U.S. Congress oppose the TPP. They say a government like Vietnam’s should not be part of the trade deal. They criticize a lack of freedoms for Vietnam’s citizens.
The Vietnamese government wants the trade relationship with the U.S. to expand to include military weapons. Until recent years, few experts would have believed that the U.S. government would permit sales of weapons to its former enemy.
Cu Chi Loi is the director of the Vietnam Institute of American Studies. He told VOA that “the removal of the lethal weapons ban is…a very important symbol…Maintaining (the) embargo would show the limits” of the relationship,” he said.
The United States partly lifted its 30-year-old ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam in October 2014. U.S. officials decided to permit what they called “the future transfer of maritime security-related” weapons.
Last year, the U.S. government provided $18 million for an American company to build two 22-meter-long aluminum patrol boats for Vietnam’s coast guard.
Pham Quang Vinh is Vietnam’s ambassador to the U.S. This month, during a visit to Texas, he called the lethal weapons ban a “barrier of the past.” He said it should be cancelled to show that his country and the United States have full relations and a strong partnership.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee he supports a total cancellation of the ban.
Vietnam and the United States agree on several issues. They are both concerned about China’s activities in the South China Sea. Loi told VOA that this level of agreement has helped the United States and Vietnam to “overcome many obstacles and differences.”
Observers will watch for any information during Obama’s visit that shows the two countries are willing to work together more closely.
Many people in Vietnam are angry about China’s decision to develop and strengthen disputed reefs in the South China Sea. But Vietnam’s policy is to avoid alliances and bar foreign military bases from its territory. The country also refuses to depend on others for defense.
Yet there are reports that Vietnam could change this policy if the weapons ban is cancelled. In exchange, the U.S. military reportedly would get the right to use Vietnamese airfields and ports, such as the large one at Cam Ranh Bay.
A major problem in the relationship between the two countries is American criticism of human rights in Vietnam. The non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch says Vietnam’s human rights record “remains dire in all areas.”
Earlier this month, an editorial in The Washington Post said “the lifting of the arms ban appears reasonable, but Mr. Obama should insist on real improvements on human rights before proceeding.”
An increasing number of Vietnamese bloggers and activists are demanding democracy, greater freedom and information about what the government is doing. But they risk being threatened or imprisoned by the government.
Cu Chi Loi says “the U.S. and international organizations must recognize that human rights in Vietnam have recently improved significantly. That should be taken into account objectively. A developing nation, of course, is still facing difficulties and obstacles in that issue.”
Tuong Lai and other Vietnamese say the issue of human rights should not be discussed now. He told VOA “if the economy is strengthened, it would be favorable to discuss social changes and human rights.”
I’m Anne Ball.
Words in This Story
strategic - adj. of or related to long-term aims or goals
advantage – n. something (such as a good position or condition) that helps to make someone or something better or more likely to succeed than others
key – adj. extremely important
lethal – adj. causing or able to cause death
maritime – adj. of or relating to sailing on the sea or doing business (such as trading) by sea
obstacle – n. something that makes it difficult to do something
dire – adj. requiring immediate action; very urgent; very serious or extreme
proceed – v. to go or move in a particular direction (figuratively)
taken into account – expression considered