The President spent the week of May 27 in Asia, and got quite a bit done. He first went to Southeast Asia to promote trade with the US, and in the process announced that he would lift the arms embargo against Vietnam. By Thursday he had gone to Japan for the G-7 summit in Ise, Mie Prefecture and on Friday made a side-trip to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, becoming the first American President to visit Hiroshima. Lifting the arms embargo is
a big, but the visit to
Hiroshima is easily the bigger story. Or
the more dramatic one, at least. There
is a lot to say about both legs of the trip, but they connect through the
President’s policies. Obama has always
accepted the wisdom that the 21st century will be “the Asian
Century;” due to the continuing improvements in the standards of living around
East and Southern Asia, and the increasing economic importance of the continent
to the rest of us. This trip, which I
believe will be his last to Asia as POTUS, makes for the perfect finale.
Vietnam has been seeking permission to buy American arms for several years, but American law forbids arms sales to countries with poor human rights records. In the past, when Vietnam lobbied to have the embargo lifted, someone would publicly dismiss the matter on those grounds. Members of my parents’ generation will likely have bad memories of the last time we armed Vietnam. Specifically, the southern half of it, because the Republic of Vietnam did not have the infrastructure to manufacture their own weapons. Times have changed. The Republic of Vietnam no longer exists. It is part of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam now, and a major economic region. Vietnam can manufacture their own weapons, but Vietnam cannot manufacture enough to match the might of its nearest rival: China. However, Vietnam’s economy is thriving. They may not have the experience building advanced weapon systems, but they seem to have the coin they need to buy them. For the US and Vietnam, such a deal could be win-win. The Vietnamese get better gear to defend their claims, experience using it, and possibly build on that to start building their own UAVs (the American product Hanoi wants the most) or missiles or stealth planes. The United States gets a closer trading and martial relationship with Vietnam, and hopefully a profit. We both get some more leverage against China. Maybe. But that is a huge risk. China will not take kindly to its principal rival giving a third state a better way to kill loyal Chinese soldiers. On the other hand, China is building and selling weapons systems meant to fight Americans. I think the President understands these risks, because he has always handled China very carefully. He has also pushed American exports very hard in his diplomacy all over the world, and Vietnam is a major arms market.
There is more at stake than profits from sales and giving others the means to handle China. Obama gives tangible signs of US engagement in the region by selling things and giving speeches on major occasions: such as the first visit by a President of the United States to Hiroshima. In a funny way, President Obama’s speech at Hiroshima was entirely predictable, but also perfect. It is wrong that no other President visited Hiroshima and addressed that history, considering that a number of American Presidents have visited Japan. Then again, if we play that game we can ask why Obama himself waited this long. Regardless, in his speech, President Obama did not apologize for the use of the atomic bombs, did not re-litigate President Harry Truman’s decision to use them, or any other American or Allied decisions in the war. Instead, he spoke broadly about the suffering World War II caused everyone, and the continued afflictions of war, the need to come to terms with our history, the closeness of the American-Japanese alliance, and the seemingly unattainable dream of a nuclear weapons-free world. By now I suppose it goes without saying that I liked the speech. President Obama’s gesture was long overdue, because as allies, the US and Japan need leaders who will show sympathy and concern for one another as a show of solidarity. Japanese people never talk about World War II with outsiders, but the scars are still very vivid. Americans talk about World War II incessantly. Some are nastier than the others--both people and scars. When I meet European people in Japan, sooner or later they tell me how surprised they are at how new everything is. Americans often make the same observation. That newness? That is partly an outcome of the war, partly an outcome of the post-war boom.
If the trip in May is ultimately the capstone to President Obama’s policy, it will have been an appropriate finale to eight years of thoughtful Asia policy. But anything could happen between now and next January. Good diplomacy takes many forms. You need to produce concrete deliverables that people can really feel, but you also need appreciate the intangibles as well.