US President Barack Obama yesterday headed for his first visit to Vietnam, a trip aimed at sealing the transformation of an old enemy into a new partner to help counter China's growing assertiveness in the region.
Four decades after the Vietnam War, Obama – the first US leader to come of age after a conflict that bitterly divided America – will seek to deepen defence and economic ties with the country's communist government while also prodding them on human rights, aides say.
Pressure has mounted for Obama to use his landmark visit, which begins today, to roll back a 32-year-old arms embargo on Hanoi, one of the last vestiges of wartime animosity.
Lifting the ban – something Vietnam has long sought – would anger Beijing, which resents US efforts to forge stronger military bonds with its smaller neighbours at a time of rising tensions in the disputed South China Sea. But there was no immediate word of a final US decision on the issue.
Vietnam's poor human rights record remains a possible sticking point, but the Obama administration appears increasingly swayed toward giving Hanoi some leeway to build its deterrent against China.
"Nobody has any illusions," said Evan Medeiros, Obama's former top Asia adviser. "This trip sends important signals to China about US activism in the region and growing US concern about Chinese behaviour."
Obama will be the third consecutive US president to visit Vietnam since diplomatic relations were restored in 1995.