US President Barack Obama's upcoming trip to Asia will highlight two nations
US officials have underscored the forward-looking nature of the trip that begins Monday in Vietnam, where they acknowledge a fraught history stemming from years of war in the 1960s and 70s, and concludes Friday with a visit to the Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, where the US dropped an atomic bomb during World War II.
"Under the rebalance (to Asia) we've promoted an extraordinary reconciliation with two former enemies," Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel said. "You’ll see that on this visit, as the president visits two nations with whom we’ve fought bitter wars, that we’ve now built an extraordinary record of cooperation and of partnership."
The White House has acknowledged this difficult history, with officials meeting with veterans groups ahead of the trip. But unlike in Japan, Obama's Vietnam visit does not include stops at sites directly tied to the war.
Obama is the third US president to visit Vietnam since the war ended and relations were normalized in 1995. He will likely avoid the tricky optics of predecessors Bill Clinton and George W Bush, whose lack of military service in the conflict was a matter of public debate.
Obama will have his eye not on the past but on a future relationship undergirded by a 12-nation trade agreement spearheaded by his administration.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreed upon last year would open Vietnam's growing markets to US goods, US trade officials note, pointing to the elimination of tariffs such as a 70-per-cent levy on US cars. Officials have also been quick to defend the agreement against concerns it would damage US manufacturing, including in the apparel industry, where Vietnamese goods stand to benefit.
One legacy of the war remains an arms embargo and speculation has swirled about whether Obama will lift the ban during the trip or soon afterward. The US eased restrictions two years ago and the Obama administration has faced calls to lift it altogether.
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the issue is regularly reviewed and is expected to be discussed with the Vietnamese. He stressed however that the relationship is "evolving" and that human rights concerns remain an issue.
The visit will include talks with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Communist Party head Nguyen Phu Trong.
In Japan, where Obama will attend the Group of Seven leaders summit, history will be front and centre as he ends the visit at the site of the US nuclear bombing in Hiroshima.
He is not expected to deliver a major speech, but instead will reflect on the horrors of war, the US-Japanese alliance and nuclear disarmament which he has made a key goal of his presidency.
"It's an opportunity to I think focus the world’s attention on the need to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and seek a world without them," Rhodes said.
The White House has been very clear that Obama will not apologize for the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even while acknowledging a special responsibility by the US as the only nation ever to have used a nuclear weapon.
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