Strategic implications of President Obama’s trip to Vietnam

Strategic implications of President Obama’s trip to Vietnam

President Obama’s visit to Vietnam this month is indicative of increasing economic and security cooperation between the two states. It is also a significant step in enhancing Vietnam’s regional capabilities during a period of increasing tension in the South China Sea.

Why is the presidential visit to Vietnam significant?

Commencing on 22nd May, United States’ President Barack Obama made a symbolic three-day trip to Vietnam. The trip comes after the historic July 2015 trip to the United States by Secretary-General of the Vietnam Communist Party Nguyen Phu Trong, and is indicative of the strengthening ties between the two former adversaries.

The visit is also an example of the Obama administration’s continuing strategy to reorient its focus to the Asia-Pacific. Referred to as the ‘pivot’, or rebalance, this strategy recognises the importance of the Asia-Pacific as an economic and trade hub, the safety of which is vital for global prosperity and progress.

In remarks made by President Obama and Vietnam’s President Quang in the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on 23 May, a number of topics of discussion were highlighted. These included important deals reached on trade, healthcare, and humanitarian assistance. Additional targeted areas for cooperation included education and training, health security, epidemics and terrorism.

In an attempt to address war legacy issues, the United States has also committed to helping with the clean up of Bien Hoa Airport, following joint efforts to clean up Agent Orange from Danang Airport.

Economic cooperation

Trade agreements were a key topic for discussion during the visit, with a number of important trade deals implemented. This will help deepen economic ties between Vietnam and the United States. As President Obama remarked during his trip, US imports to (exports to, correct?) Vietnam have grown by more than 150 percent during his time in office. The United States is also the single largest market for Vietnam’s exports.

Boosting this further, it was confirmed that new commercial deals worth $16 billion would be implemented,  including the sale of 100 Boeing aircraft to Vietjet. The two Presidents also reaffirmed their commitment to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).

Defence and security cooperation

The two Presidents also committed themselves to heightened defence and security ties, with maritime cooperation a key priority. Central to this was the United States’ agreement to lift the 50-year ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam. This would allow Vietnam to purchase an array of arms equipment, including maritime patrol aircraft, drones and fighter jets.

President Obama stated that this will “ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself”, whilst removing a “lingering vestige of the Cold War”. He also confirmed that the move underscored the United States’ commitment to fully normalise its relationship with Vietnam.

The move has drawn criticism from certain human rights advocates, who argue that Vietnam will benefit disproportionately. This is because the ban’s lift is proceeding despite Vietnam’s failure to improve its human rights record. For many years, this condition was a prerequisite for closer defence ties with the United States.

Despite President Obama stating that any arms sales would be subject to strict human rights requirements, advocates feel the President has lost valuable leverage with respect to Vietnam’s human rights record.

Strategic implications of the visit

Why has President Obama chosen to now lift the ban, despite little progress made by Vietnam with respect to its human rights record? Given current tensions in the South China Sea, it seems most likely that the move is designed to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the region. President Obama has disputed such claims. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the unpredictable nature of China’s response if it were to be openly targeted by the United States.

However, President Obama did confirm during his speech in Hanoi that the United States and Vietnam are committed to upholding the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The President’s trip to Vietnam can therefore be seen as an attempt to strengthen a strategic link in its balancing act against China.

With stronger US-economic and defence ties, Vietnam can now play an enhanced role in regional security. Summarily, Obama’s visit enables the United States to satisfy three key objectives:  improve access to Vietnam’s emerging markets, solidify its foothold in the Asia-Pacific, and ultimately satisfy its Asia pivot strategy.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Laura Southgate

Dr Laura Southgate is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Aston University in Birmingham, United Kingdom. She has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and an MA in International Relations and Security, and a BA in Law and Politics, from the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the international relations and security of Southeast Asia.