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President Obama Visits Vietnam- Objectives; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0073/2016

Courtesy: Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, May 23, 2016.

Q1. What do you think is the primary goal of President Obama’s visit and the key deliverables he’s looking to achieve?

ANSWER: President Obama is looking towards the future and ensuring that his policy of rebalance to Asia leaves a positive legacy. Vietnam is one of the success stories of Obama’s rebalance policy. Vietnam signed on to TPP negotiations at an early stage, a signature initiative of the Obama presidency. In 2013 the presidents of Vietnam and the United States signed a multifaceted Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership. Two years later the U.S. and Vietnamese defence ministers issues a Joint Vision Statement on defence cooperation. All during this period Vietnam pressed the United States to end its arms embargo. This was viewed as political discrimination. Vietnam’s request has been met. This opens the door to develop defence trade and cooperation in defence technology including co-production. The final joint statement to be issued at the conclusion of President Obama’s visit will build on the agreement on comprehensive partnership and include major initiatives across a number of areas – education, academic exchanges, science and technology, young leaders, etc.

Q2. How much of a role does the history of the Vietnam War play in cementing and furthering relations between the two countries?

ANSWER: Long ago Vietnam adopted a pithy expression “let bygones be bygones”. Two issues have persisted: dealing with the effects of dioxin poisoning resulting from the U.S. use of Agent Orange and the disposal of unexploded ordnance left over from the war. Both issues have been addressed by the Obama Administration and I expect the President to announce a further commitment to address these issues. Vietnam and the United States have moved beyond the war. People like myself who were in Vietnam in 1967-68 are now in their seventies. A younger generation has emerged in both countries and America is viewed very favourably by the Vietnamese public in general and the younger generation in particular.

Q3. What impact will the lifting of the U.S. arms embargo have on Vietnam’s bilateral relations with the United States and the region?

ANSWER: The lifting of the arms embargo will not result immediately or in the near term future in any large Vietnamese procurements of weapons platforms (ships and aircraft) or systems (missiles). The lifting of the arms embargo gives Vietnam some leverage in dealing with China. The lifting of the arms embargo removes political restraints U.S allies and strategic partners may have felt in their dealings with Vietnam. Vietnam is likely to give priority to procuring advanced communications systems and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology related to maritime security and maritime domain awareness. U.S. systems will be compatible with regional states and feed into a U.S. initiative to develop a real time common operational picture. Vietnam will be drawn into a very special regional club that includes U.S. allies and strategic partners.

Q4. What are your thoughts on the attempt to counterbalance China’s influence and how this visit will impact on the current situation in the South China Sea?

ANSWER: Vietnam does not want to ally with the United States against China. But Vietnam would like to see the U.S. do the heavy lifting to counter-balance China’s military power. Vietnam wants U.S. support for self-help or, in other words, support for Vietnam’s efforts to be as self-reliant in defence matters. The U.S. and Vietnam have a growing convergence of strategic interests in countering Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. Both agree that maritime disputes should be settled peacefully on the basis on international law without the threat or use of force. Both will find common cause when China rejects the finding of the Arbitral Tribunal in the case brought against China by the Philippines.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer)]

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