Kurt Campbell, chairman of the Asia Group and assistantsecretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 2009 to 2013, had accompanied Obama on several Asian trips. He interpreted the trip to Vietnam and Hiroshima as not about China, but more about reconciliation with nations of two major wars.
“The Second World War and the Vietnam War are two extraordinarily difficult issues that stir a lot of emotions in the US,” he said.
It was Obama’s first trip to Vietnam and to Hiroshima, where the US military dropped its first atomic bomb on Aug 6, 1945.
Campbell described it as an extremely difficult rebalancing act for Obama in many places.
“This can’t be an apology tour. This can’t be sort of resisting historical fact. It can’t be sweeping under the table what transpired in Vietnam,” he said.
While more than 58,000 US military personnel died during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s, the death toll of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians was estimated at 3 million.
It is believed that more than 1,600 US military servicemen never returned from that war. And their relatives have pushed Obama to demand Vietnam’s help in accounting for them.
For Vietnam, the welcoming crowds outside the street eatery masked another bitter war legacy. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese over three generations are still living with the effects of exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange, SkyNews quoted Vietnamese authorities as saying.
US military sprayed around 12 million gallons of the toxic herbicide across the country during the war. The victims also included US military who returned from the war.
“We want a better relationship with Vietnam. We also want a recognition of the tragedy of nuclear weapons and our desire to diminish their role in global politics,” Campbell said.
After attending the G7 summit on Thursday and Friday in Ise-Shima in Japan, Obama will become the first US president to pay a brief visit on Friday to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the Atomic Bomb Dome.
The two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed some 200,000 people, mostly civilians, during and after the explosions. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that a group of South Koreans plan to protest during Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. Among the people killed by the atomic bombs, some 40,000 to 50,000 were Koreans who had been taken to Hiroshima or Nagasaki against their will as forced laborers, or had settled in the cities after fleeing deprivation in their occupied homeland.
In a statement this week, the Korean survivors said the US would have moral authority only after it apologized for the “original sin” of dropping the bombs and paid reparations to innocent victims.
In surveys, most Japanese have not demanded an apology from Obama, citing that Japan started the war. Some worried that a demand for an apology might have forced Obama to cancel the trip.
Inside the US, veterans and military historians insisted that Obama should not apologize because dropping the bombs was necessary to shorten the war and forestall an invasion of the Japanese island of Kyushu, which could have led to many more US casualties.
Obama and other US officials have emphasized the importance of looking to the future. In his remarks at Hiroshima, he will continue to promote his 2009 vision of a nuclear free world.
Michael Green, senior vicepresident for Asia and the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said that message will not be unpopular in Hiroshima, but he is not sure about the Japanese and South Korea governments which are increasingly concerned about nuclear weapons systems in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, noted that Obama has been working hard in the past two years to reconcile with old enemies and passing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to make both part of his presidential legacy.
That reconciling included restoration of a diplomatic relationship with Cuba on July 20, 2015, after a hiatus of 54 years, Obama’s trip to Cuba in March of this year, and improving relations with Iran last year with the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. meeting and try to conclude the agreement by the end of this year.
While some Chinese officials and experts on China expressed concern over the possible negative impact of TPP on China, much of the attention on Obama’s trip this week has been on the lifting of the US arms embargo on Vietnam and Obama’s rhetoric regarding the South China Sea.
Su Hao, a professor of AsiaPacific studies at China Foreign Affairs University, told China Daily that it is obvious that the US aims to contain China by taking advantage of Hanoi’s territorial disputes with Beijing. “Vietnam is also seeking support from countries outside the region to exert pressure on China over the disputes,” Su said.
Murray Hiebert, a senior fellow of the Southeast Asia program at CSIS, said the Vietnamese have done some window shopping, “but in the end they find American equipment very expensive, and the process of buying it very rigorous. It’s cheaper and easier buying it from the Russians’’.
Despite the lifting of the arms ban, it must be approved by the US Congress, where some members on the left oppose it, citing what they say is Vietnam’s problematic human rights record.
Li, of Brookings, doesn’t see Obama’s trip as essentially about China. He said that the US rebalancing to Asia strategy might be partly aimed at China, but it is not to contain China because it is impossible to contain China.
“On China, Obama does not want to evoke major trouble. That is why he has been meeting top Chinese leaders quite often,” Li said.
Campbell also noted that Obama’s trip is not part of a pincer movement aimed at China, citing that Obama only had one bilateral meeting during the fourth Nuclear Security Summit in Washington in early April and that was with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“Later this year, we’ll have a very important summit between the US and China,” he said, referring to the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, in September.
Obama, who spent his childhood years in Indonesia, has been the US president who has made the most trips to Asia. The September trip to China for the G20 summit and then to Laos for the 11th East Asia Summit will be his 11th and last trip there as president.
Relations between China, Japan, Vietnam and the US are complicated and often emotional, partly due to maritime territorial disputes between China and Japan and China and Vietnam escalating in recent years.
Many Chinese believe it’s the US that has been stirring up tensions to advance its own agenda in the region in the wake of a fast-rising China.
Obama’s current Asia trip comes at a sensitive time as an arbitration court at The Hague is expected to rule on the Philippine case on South China Sea in the coming weeks. China has not participated in and has opposed the arbitration from the beginning and repeatedly expressed that it wants to solve the dispute bilaterally with the Philippines through negotiations.
Newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who will assume office on June 30, has been regarded a moderate on the South China Sea issue, compared with the soon departing Benigno Aquino III.
The new Vietnamese leadership, elected in early April, is also viewed as less hostile to China than their predecessors.
Hua Chunying, spokeswoman, Foreign Ministry Information Department President Obama shakes hands with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a press conference after a bilateral meeting during the 2016 Ise-Shima G7 Summit in Shima, Japan, on Wednesday.