President Barack Obama's three-day visit to Vietnam, starting Monday, is expected to be a watershed in the growing economic and strategic relationship between the two countries, which were engaged in battle for more than a decade.
Obama leaves Washington Saturday to start his trip.
There have already been significant economic breakthroughs for the two former enemies since diplomatic ties were established between Hanoi and Washington in 1995.
Vietnam’s exports to the United States now exceed the level of other ASEAN members, while U.S. exports to Vietnam have grown dramatically.
Vietnam is one of the dozen signatories to the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), giving it a boost over other nations in Southeast Asia, such as Indonesia and Thailand, which are not part of the pact.
“The Trans-Pacific Partnership is the key to helping Vietnam begin a new chapter and move away from China’s orbit,” said Tuong Lai, a former prime ministerial adviser.
But the TPP faces legislative hurdles in Washington, where some opponents will – among numerous concerns – raise objections to what they regard as a totalitarian regime being included in the controversial trade agreement.
Lethal weapons ban
The Vietnamese want the trade relationship to expand and include a sector that, until recent years, would have been unimaginable: weaponry.
“The removal of the lethal weapons ban is also a very important symbol as the two countries have formed a comprehensive partnership. Maintaining that embargo would show the limits in bilateral ties,” Cu Chi Loi, the director of the Vietnam Institute of American Studies, told VOA News.
The United States partly lifted its three-decade ban on lethal arms sales to the communist country in October 2014, allowing what was termed “the future transfer of maritime security-related” hardware.
Last year, the U.S. government provided $18 million for an American contractor to build a pair of 22-meter-long aluminum patrol boats for Vietnam's coast guard.
Hanoi's ambassador to the United States, Pham Quang Vinh, earlier this month, told an audience in Texas at a summit on the Vietnam War, the lethal weapons ban is a “barrier of the past” that should be removed to fully reflect normalized relations and the current level of the comprehensive partnership between the two countries.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has told the Senate Armed Services Committee he supports a total revocation of the ban.
Strategic, security issues
Vietnam and the United States share a common stance on several regional strategic and security issues – especially a mutual wariness of Beijing's intentions in the South China Sea that has resulted in Hanoi and Washington being able to “overcome many obstacles and differences,” Loi, of the Vietnam institute, told VOA.
Closely watched during the Obama visit will be any signals indicating just how far both countries are willing to take closer strategic ties.
Vietnamese public anger is growing over Beijing's fortification of disputed reefs in the South China Sea. Yet Hanoi's policy is to avoid any alliances, not have foreign military bases on its soil or rely on others for defense.
Despite the stance there is speculation that in exchange for totally scrapping the arms embargo the Pentagon would get the right to use Vietnamese airfields or ports, such as at Cam Ranh Bay.
Another sticky issue in the budding relationship is U.S. criticism of Vietnam's record on civil liberties, which “remains dire in all areas,” according to the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch.
“The lifting of the arms ban appears reasonable, but Mr. Obama should insist on real improvements on human rights before proceeding,” said The Washington Post in a May 13 editorial.
Bloggers and activists
An increasing number of Vietnamese bloggers and activists are also expressing a desire for democracy, greater freedom and transparency, but they risk retribution from the authorities ranging from intimidation to imprisonment.
“The U.S. and international organizations must recognize that human rights in Vietnam have recently improved significantly. That should be taken into account objectively,” Loi said. “A developing nation, of course, is still facing difficulties and obstacles in that issue.”
Some Vietnamese, such as professor Lai, the former prime ministerial adviser, call for the contentious issue to be put aside by Washington, for now.
“If the economy is strengthened, it would be favorable to discuss social changes and human rights,” he told VOA.
Economic development in Vietnam, however, appears to be raising environmental issues, leading Vietnamese to protest this month in unprecedented numbers.
The catalyst for the marches – which have been broken up by riot police – is 100 tons of dead fish on the central coast. Demonstrators blame the mass fish kill on the release of toxic chemicals from a new Taiwanese-owned steel mill.
“We are concerned about the increasing levels of violence perpetrated against Vietnamese protesters expressing their anger over the mysterious mass deaths of fish along the country’s central coast,” said the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in a May 13 statement. “We call on the government of Vietnam to respect the right to freedom of assembly in line with its international human rights obligations.”
The demonstrations have spread to the capital, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City, and have been held on subsequent Sundays. Thus, the authorities could find themselves confronting another mass protest this coming Sunday, on the eve of the Obama visit.
Trung Nguyen contributed to this report from Washington.