In Vietnam, Obama Sends Signals to McConnell, China

President lauds deepening U.S.-Vietnamese ties, Trans-Pacific trade deal

President Barack Obama with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang during his visit to the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on Monday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang during his visit to the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on Monday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Posted May 24, 2016 at 10:16am

President Barack Obama laced his Tuesday remarks to the Vietnamese people with subtle messages for key U.S. lawmakers and Chinese leaders.  

Obama reflected on the two countries’ past, including the Vietnam War , and hailed their cooperation in the decades since that have made them “partners.” He extolled deepening U.S.-Vietnamese work on trade, education and security, saying Washington hopes to normalize relations with its former foe.  

But woven into Obama’s message of friendship were what appeared carefully calibrated signals to political opponents he is courting over a massive U.S.-Asian trade pact and the biggest power in the region, China.  

Obama went full salesman during the part of his remarks dedicated to the Trans-Pacific Partnership , the trade deal that was met with skepticism in the United States and many Asian countries.  


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He told the Vietnamese people that approval by all 12 countries that agreed to the deal is needed if they hope “to unleash the full potential of your economy.”  

The trade pact would allow Vietnam to “sell more of your products to the world and it will attract new investment,” and also “require reforms to protect workers and rule of law and intellectual property,” he said.  

Obama said that formal approval of the trade agreement would deliver “important strategic benefits” to Vietnam, and would make the country “less dependent on any one trading partner and enjoy broader ties with more partners, including the United States.”  

The president described the trade package as a means by which the still-developing Asian country can “address economic inequality and will advance human rights, with higher wages and safer working conditions.”  

Asian lawmakers and citizens are skeptical that the trade deal represents a good business agreement and worry about its economic consequences. Obama says it would help U.S. goods in Asian markets because it would strip away thousands of tariffs on American-made items.  

But the salesman in chief also had something for U.S. lawmakers like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who support most trade deals but are skeptical about this one and wary of approving it before a presidential election.  

“I want you to know that, as president of the United States,” Obama said, “I strongly support TPP because you’ll also be able to buy more of our goods, ‘Made in America’.”  

The line could become a standard one for an outgoing president who would very much like to see Congress approve it before he leaves office. Trade and congressional analysts in the U.S. believe his best shot will be during a lame duck session of Congress following the Nov. 8 elections.  

“All of us — the United States, Vietnam, and the other [TPP] signatories — will have to abide by … rules that we have shaped together,” Obama said. “That’s the future that is available to all of us. So we now have to get it done — for the sake of our economic prosperity and our national security.”  

The latter sales pitch has as much of an audience on Capitol Hill as it does in Vietnam, Japan  (where Obama heads next) or any other Asian country that signed onto the trade agreement.  


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Despite the quick sales pitch, the president walked a tightrope in Vietnam on the trade pact, not pressing too hard while also refusing to ignore his desire to see it formally approved.  

Josh Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations says Obama “doesn’t need to secure anything” on the trade deal during his talks with Vietnamese, Japanese and G7 leaders. Rather, “he wants to show the U.S. is still committed to TPP, even though its prospects seem dim this year,” Kurlantzick said.  

The 44th president rarely rattles his red, white and blue saber. But in Beijing’s backyard where it is the biggest dog with the biggest military, Obama did have several messages for the Asian giant.  

Obama touted the lifting of a 50-year-old ban on selling military arms to Vietnam and plans to “elevate our security cooperation and build more trust between our men and women in uniform.  

“We’ll continue to offer training and equipment to your Coast Guard to enhance Vietnam’s maritime capabilities,” he said. “Vietnam will have greater access to the military equipment you need to ensure your security. And the United States is demonstrating our commitment to fully normalize our relationship with Vietnam.”  

While not uttering the C-word (China), Obama made clear which Asian country he feels behaves too aggressively at times.  

“Nations are sovereign, and no matter how large or small a nation may be, its sovereignty should be respected, and it territory should not be violated. Big nations should not bully smaller ones. Disputes should be resolved peacefully,” he said to applause.  

China has garnered regional and international scorn for its thinly veiled and sometimes aggressive actions toward its neighbors in the waters and islands of the South China Sea.  

“We will stand with partners in upholding core principles, like freedom of navigation and overflight, and lawful commerce that is not impeded, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, through legal means, in accordance with international law,” Obama said. He also reiterated that U.S. vessels and aircraft will continue to operate in and around the South China Sea .  

Via his trade and military moves, Obama is trying to entice Vietnam to pivot away from China and toward the U.S.  


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Kurlantzick said a big goal for Obama on this trip is to “show that the U.S. is continuing to bolster the re-balance,” referring to a longstanding administration policy of “pivoting” to Asia with American economic, diplomatic, humanitarian and military tools.  

Obama and his top aides have said for years much of the developments of the 21st century will emanate from the Asia-Pacific region.  

A Chinese official on Monday reacted stoically to Obama lifting the ban on arms sales to Vietnam, saying Beijing welcomes its longtime ally’s efforts to broach normal relations with the U.S., the Wall Street Journal reported from Beijing.  

Michael Green , a former senior director for Asia policy at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said last week that Obama has an idea of how to beef up Vietnam’s military while maintaining regional peace and keeping critics at home mostly quiet.  

“What Vietnam needs is not, in my view, kinetic weapons, but radar, command and control, communications,” Green said. “And that’s something which may allow the U.S. to do more without creating a backlash.”  

Contact Bennett at Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT