President Obama’s current trip to East Asia was organized around the G-7 meeting in Japan that is currently underway. But some of the most consequential developments center around his other activities.
Obama’s stop in Vietnam did not simply advance the overall state of bilateral relations, though this was an important goal in itself. It was also the occasion for him to announce a total lifting of longstanding sanctions on lethal weapons sales to Hanoi.
The president was doubtless sincere in saying that none of this was directed against China. But his argument was credible only up to a point. That is, he may not envision even an informal alliance against China; Vietnam would not want such an arrangement, either.
But to suggest that the U.S. rebalance — an obvious theme of the president’s trip — does not include rebalancing the relative positions of regional countries such as Vietnam in the face of China’s more assertive and more prominent role, strains credulity. The “China factor” cannot be openly stated, but actions have consequences, and the advances Obama has undertaken with Vietnam and others cannot be properly understood absent that context.
Objections have been raised, especially by human rights groups, to Obama’s approach to Vietnam. Many have argued that he has surrendered whatever leverage the U.S. had over Hanoi’s human rights policies.
As with Vietnam’s inclusion as an original member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), there is an argument to be made that its inclusion will induce constructive behavior. None of that is a “given,” however, and focused follow-up diplomacy will be required to maximize the chances of success.
Perhaps even more controversial — both among some Americans and some in the region — is the president’s visit to Hiroshima, the site of the first use of nuclear weapons in history.
Some people apparently anticipate that the president will apologize for the use of nuclear weapons against Japan. Not only is this out of the question; it should be. The point of the visit is not to apologize, but to highlight the extreme destruction and suffering that war has brought to humankind and to rededicate ourselves to preventing global conflagration from ever recurring.
In the region, some Koreans have expressed concern and even anger that the U.S. is neither apologizing to them for the deaths of tens of thousands of Koreans who died in Hiroshima nor requiring Japan to apologize for its aggression and repression in that period.
But as has been said, the purpose is not to apologize, but to recall the horror of war and to rededicate all of us not to repeat history. And that applies every bit as much to the Koreans who died — and to the tens and hundreds of thousands of Americans and others who suffered — as to the citizens of Hiroshima.
As the saying goes, there is never a good time to take on controversial and sensitive challenges. But with the president in his last year in office, and given his evident willingness to tackle hard issues, this is as good a time as any to make this breakthrough and put this taboo behind us.
Moreover, President Obama is as sensitive and articulate a spokesman for this forward-looking approach as one could hope for.
This article originally appeared in The Hill, on May 26, 2016.