Obama is planning stops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City
He will be the first U.S. president to visit the Hiroshima memorial
President Barack Obama is making his 10th visit to Asia this week, a reflection of his insistence on moving American foreign policy focus away from traditional hotspots in the Middle East and Europe and toward the populous nations on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
Yet, even as the President arrived early Monday for stops in Vietnam and Japan, including Hiroshima, over the new few days, new threats of terror continue to consume White House foreign policy efforts.
The crash of EgyptAir Flight 804, which disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday and which U.S. officials suspect was brought down by terrorists, has provided another reminder of the distractions Obama faces in his latest attempt to pivot toward the Asia Pacific.
“We obviously have enormous economic and national security interests in the Asia Pacific region, just as we have a profound and enduring interest in preventing any acts of terrorism,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “We, of course, will be pursuing I think a very important assessment of an agenda that has an enormous bearing on the long-term interests of the American people.”
Obama is planning stops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, before traveling to Japan, where he’ll meet with Group of 7 leaders, representing the world’s largest economies.
White House officials say terrorism will remain a focus of the G7, as it has during their previous annual gatherings. Leaders, including French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, will all be on hand to consult on a response to the plane crash.
He’ll conclude his week-long Asia trip with a visit to Hiroshima, Japan, a historic journey seven decades after the United States dropped an atom bomb on the city at the end of World War II. Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit to site.
White House officials say Obama’s message in Hiroshima won’t be one of apology; instead, they say he will focus more broadly on how war affects innocent civilians the world over. But his presence at the site will send a reconciliatory message to Japan, where the U.S. decision to drop the bomb remains a point of resentment.
In Vietnam, Obama hopes to further bury the grievances that stem from the U.S. war there between 1955 and 1975. President Bill Clinton reopened diplomatic ties with Vietnam in 1995, and in 2000 became the first president to travel there since U.S. civilian and military personnel were evacuated from there 25 earlier.
That trip was meant to open ties to a once-deeply entrenched foe. A dramatic moment on that trip came when Clinton ventured into the countryside to search for remains of a downed U.S. fighter pilot who had never been returned or recovered.
Since then, political potency of Vietnam has faded. Even Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam War veteran who spent five-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war, now supports fully ending a U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam as the country emerges as a key counter to China in the region.
Obama’s aides said ahead of his arrival in Hanoi that no decision had been made on ending the embargo, but indicated such a move was under consideration. Until now, consistent human rights concerns had prevented the United States from fully removing the restrictions on selling weapons to Vietnam.
Many of those concerns remain, including the jailing of dissidents and stalled political reforms. But as China ramps up its maritime aggression in the South China Sea, the U.S. sees Hanoi as an increasingly important partner in checking Beijing’s territorial grabs.
How far Vietnam is willing to go in that partnership, however, remains to be seen. The United States, for example, holds little hope of establishing its own exclusive base at the Cam Ranh Bay naval facility, despite its strategic positioning at the western border of the South China Sea. Instead, U.S. officials say simply accessing the facility could help deter China.
“Vietnam’s going to be very cautious about not crossing red lines with China,” said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “The United States is going to respect that. We’re not going to be based in Cam Ranh Bay. We’re not looking for any new bases. We are looking for access arrangements but access arrangements come in all shapes and sizes and only some of them are public.”
In Vietnam and Japan, Obama also hopes to boost support for his Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which is languishing on Capitol Hill as lawmakers prepare for re-election campaigns. Facing Asian leaders, Obama will be forced to explain the delay, as well as why the two leading candidates to replace him, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, both have rejected the pact.
So, too, is Obama expecting questions about some of the foreign policy proposals that Trump has espoused on the campaign trail – including his insistence that Japan and South Korea reimburse the United States for the protection that American troops stationed in those countries provide.
Obama has dismissed Trump as dangerous and ignorant about foreign policy, rejecting his proposals outright and claiming he won’t become commander-in-chief.