IU expert: Obama’s Vietnam visit seen as ‘historic opportunity’ to strengthen relations

Anh Tran is an associate professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IU Bloomington. His research focuses on governance issues in developing countries. He directs Vietnam Initiatives at IU, a global policy think tank, and he co-founded and directs the Vietnam Young Leaders Award, which brings Vietnamese officials to the U.S. for postgraduate study. He has consulted for national governments, the United Nations and the World Bank.

Anh Tran

Anh Tran

With President Barack Obama visiting Vietnam, Tran answered questions from Policy Briefings about the relationship between the two countries and the significance of the U.S. president’s visit.

Q: How would you describe the potential value of President Obama’s visit for the people of Vietnam?

A: President Obama’s visit is furthering the strategy to “pivot” U.S. foreign policy toward the Asian continent. The Vietnamese people look forward to this visit as a historic opportunity for the two countries to achieve profound comprehension, heal past wounds and reshape the future bilateral cooperation between two countries.

Q: What does the United States gain from its improving relationship with Vietnam?

A: The U.S. primarily expects to gain more potential profits from the trade. Since 2001, bilateral trade has grown dramatically, from $451 million in 1995 to nearly $35 billion in 2014. U.S. exports to Vietnam were worth $5.5 billion in 2014; they included agricultural products, machinery, yarn/fabric and vehicles.

Vietnam — with the 14th largest population in the world, more than 94 million people — is experiencing significant economic growth and is a huge potential market for U.S products. On top of that, the U.S. may gain a remarkable ally in addressing China’s expansionism in the region.

Q: President Obama and President Tran Dai Quang announced Monday that the U.S. was lifting its arms embargo against Vietnam. Why is this important to Vietnam at this time?

A: The lifting of the arms embargo gives Vietnam some strategic opportunities in its disputes with China over the South China Sea and freedom of navigation in international waters. It helps Vietnam reduce its reliance on buying defensive arms from Russia. It also shows a warming of relations between the U.S and Vietnam and opens a new chapter for the relationship between U.S. and Vietnam in various areas.

Q: White House statements about the visit have focused on trade and the Trans Pacific Partnership. Are there other issues regarding the relationship that should also get attention?

A: A noticeable issue is the inconsistent perspective between two countries regarding human rights in Vietnam. Obviously, the U.S will not try to “impose” a democratic system on Vietnam, but it will try to bring out problems related to human rights that both countries believe are universal. These include, in President Obama’s words, “freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, and … the right of civil society to organize and help improve their communities in their country.”

Q: In addition to meeting with leaders and visiting cultural and historic sites, President Obama is scheduled to take part Wednesday in a Young Southeast Leaders Initiative town hall meeting. What is the significance of his decision to participate in this event?

A: The initiative was launched in 2013 as President Obama’s signature program to strengthen leadership development and networking in Southeast Asia as well as ties between the U.S and Southeast Asia. The U.S. president’s participation in the town hall meeting emphasizes the position of the young people in reshaping the future of Vietnam and the future of the Southeast Asia. This participation also sends a message about the U.S. commitment to support and encourage the young people to lead the country and region forward. This dialogue is also expected as the building deeper partnership between U.S and Vietnam in the future.

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