President Barack Obama, in a forward-looking speech, told the Vietnamese people Tuesday that they and the American people were “embarking on a 100-year journey together.”
“With this visit we've put our relationship on a firmer footing for decades to come,” Obama predicted.
Whether the relationship involving the former enemies solidifies, as Obama desires, could depend on who succeeds him in the White House next January.
“After all, when she was secretary of state, Hillary Clinton did play a major role in helping the pivot to Asia. But if it's a [Donald] Trump presidency, then all bets are off vis-à-vis ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], Vietnam and quite a few other issues, including trade,” said Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
In the audience for the U.S. leader's wide-ranging address at Hanoi’s National Convention Center were more than 2,000 people, including some Vietnamese government officials.
The speech also touched on the very sensitive topic of human rights.
Obama noted that the rights to freedom of speech, the press and assembly are enshrined in Vietnam’s constitution. He also spoke of opening Vietnam’s political process to candidates from outside the Communist Party.
“It is my view that upholding these rights is not a threat to stability,” Obama said.
There are more than 100 political prisoners in Vietnam, and additional people have been detained in the past week, according to activists.
Prior to his speech Tuesday, Obama met with six Vietnamese civil society members, saying there were “significant areas of concern” about political freedom, and he praised those Vietnamese “willing to make their voices heard.”
Obama noted that there were “several other activists who were invited who were prevented from coming for various reasons.”
Dissident Ngueyn Quang A told reporters that he had been forced into a car by police Tuesday, driven outside Hanoi and detained for more than five hours, preventing him from meeting the U.S. president.
Also, activist Doan Trang said that when she was en route from Saigon to Hanoi to see Obama at the U.S. Embassy's invitation, she was detained at a hostel in the northern province of Ninh Binh for a day.
“They told me I was detained because of my Facebook posts related to my report on the undemocratic election process in Vietnam," the journalist-turned-blogger told VOA. "They denied preventing me from meeting President Obama, but one can really see why they did that. When I told them that it is not right and undiplomatic to do so, they challenged me to sue them. They even told me that it is a lie, as there was no schedule of President Obama’s meeting with activists on [the] official agenda.”
"We protested to the government" of Vietnam about some civil society figures being prevented from attending the Hanoi meeting, White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Saigon.
Vietnam has on numerous occasions denied detaining dissidents, reiterating that it imprisons only those who break laws.
Criticism from HRW
For the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch the president’s remarks on human rights and the joint statement in Hanoi did not go far enough.
“I would contest his characterization that there has been modest progress in Vietnam. ... There has been little or no progress in Vietnam,” said Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director of Human Rights Watch.
Robertson told VOA that human rights organizations had been promised by the White House and State Department that there would have to be significant progress demonstrated by Vietnam before any total removal of Washington’s ban on selling weapons to Hanoi, which was announced Monday.
“What did they [the U.S.] get? They got nothing,” Robertson asserted. “You got a big fat goose egg when it comes to human rights.”
Robertson also criticized the references to human rights in the joint statement as “pretty thin gruel.”
An outlawed Vietnamese pro-democracy party expressed a more enthusiastic reaction to Obama’s comments in Hanoi on human rights, saying he outlined a “forceful argument for a free Vietnam.”
The widely watched speech and presidential visit in Vietnam will make it “even harder for the communist leadership to justify the status quo, to sweep human rights abuses under the rug,” Duy Hoang, spokesman for the U.S.-based Viet Tan, which claims members inside Vietnam, said in a statement.
Freedom of navigation
Without naming China, Obama also reiterated the right to freedom of navigation and said the United States would support that right for other nations.
“Big nations should not bully smaller ones,” the U.S. president said to applause.
Obama, on his first visit to Vietnam, on Monday gave his hosts a present they had been hoping for: a total lifting of the U.S. embargo on sales of lethal weapons.
Obama denied the removal of the ban was tied to increasing concerns about Beijing’s military activities in the disputed South China Sea.
But China’s Global Times tabloid, run by the Communist Party, in its Tuesday edition, said Obama’s assertion that lifting the arms ban was not tied to containing China was a lie.
The United States “is taking advantage of Vietnam to stir up more troubles in the South China Sea,” over which Beijing claims sovereignty, the newspaper said.
Some analysts are calling Obama’s visit a showcase of the success of the administration’s “rebalance to Asia" policy.
“The president's decision takes the normalization process between two former battlefield foes one step further and provides Vietnam a hedge against China's increased assertiveness in the South China Sea.” said Murray Hiebert, senior Southeast Asia program adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Carl Thayer, a political science professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said the lifting of the arms embargo would enable diplomatic relations to normalize.
But human rights remain a key element in the U.S. policy, Thayer said, with the lifting of the embargo a “political and diplomatic payback for Vietnam’s cooperation.”
“But in a practical sense nothing has changed. The arms embargo now lifted, Vietnam will still have to pass through the same restrictions" as any other purchaser of U.S. arms, "and the U.S. policy relating [arms purchases] to human rights remains in place,” Thayer told VOA.
The benefits to Vietnam from the change mean an end to “political discrimination,” while for the U.S., it removes a major impediment to defense cooperation. But Thayer said in the immediate term, Vietnam will rely on long-term partner Russia for the purchase of major military items.
“Vietnam’s most modern equipment — [Sukhoi] Su-30s [fighter aircraft], Gepard-class frigates, advanced Kilo-class submarines — are all Russian,” he said.
But Thayer expects Vietnam will look to the U.S. for advanced communications technology, coastal radar and intelligence, and surveillance and reconnaissance technology to assist in maritime domain awareness.
Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak at Chulalongkorn University described the lifting of the arms embargo as “a significant milestone” in U.S.-Vietnam relations.
Thitinan said both countries have their own needs to build the relationship.
“Vietnam really needs the United States to counter China’s weight, and at the same time the U.S. wants to build and consolidate a legacy that Obama laid out under the rebalancing strategy,” he told VOA. “So now the United States is, I think, really stepping up its game around the regions, especially in the maritime front.”
The Philippines also contests China’s greater claims to the South China Sea and has looked to the U.S. for increased support.
“This means that Beijing is going to be under more pressure, and Beijing may be driven now to try to further divide ASEAN because Beijing will feel more insecure from the stepped-up, bolstered relationship between the U.S. and Philippines on the one hand and the U.S. and Vietnam on the other,” Thitinan said.
“In that sense it is running the danger of being torn apart, that ASEAN's centrality of the 10 countries will suddenly weaken and each instead would become a satellite to one or the other great power,” Tay in Singapore told VOA.
While Vietnam is a key member of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Vietnam also relies on China for trade and business investment and it is Vietnam’s leading trading partner.
“China is a huge, giant neighbor that Vietnam cannot antagonize. At the same time, Vietnam is hedging with the TPP,” said Thitinan. “So Vietnam has got its foot in the American camp now, at the same time it’s not antagonizing openly the Chinese. This is Vietnam’s geostrategic play.”
Obama headed next to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, where the focus shifted to trade with a speech to business leaders and entrepreneurs.
Ron Corben contributed to this report from Bangkok; Truong Nguyen contributed from Washington. The report also was produced in collaboration with VOA's Vietnamese service.