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Obama in Vietnam: Street food soft power trumps choosing fish

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27 May 2016 14:40

President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam (the first by a US president in nearly 10 years) came at a time of unusual political turmoil.

In mid-May I wrote on how the large 'fish kill drama' was the first test for the new government in Vietnam, and that until both the immediate problems were properly addressed and the deeper underlying public worries of food security and management of foreign investment taken into account, people would continue to 'choose fish’ over economic development. 

However, in the short term it turns out dead fish are not nearly as interesting as barbecued pork and rice noodles, provided the leader of the free world is eating them with a TV chef known for his love of Hanoi’s food. President Obama sitting down for a dinner of bun cha with Anthony Bourdain was well-covered by local and international news outlets, and there was a crowd of cheering fans outside the restaurant.

Much came of President Obama’s visit, most notably the full lifting of the arms embargo after a partial lifting on non-lethals in 2014. This has been described by the parties involved as just another step on the long road to a full normalisation of ties, rather than another large brick in an alliance-like encirclement of China. This is something even Beijing publicly agrees with, calling the embargo a leftover from the Cold War (Beijing also called Australia’s Defence White Paper Cold War-esque) and welcoming closer ties between the two nations. 

The Vietnam-US Comprehensive Partnership saw an update, with agreement for cooperation across a number of areas. President Obama also met with activists to discuss their concerns, though some (such as the 69-year-old activist Nguyen Quang A) were prevented from attending the meeting.

The deft soft power moments of the president eating dinner at a regular restaurant in Hanoi (even though that dish is typical lunchtime fare and hard to find after 12:30pm) and later listening to a performance from female rapper Su Boi captured the people’s attention and sent Vietnam’s social media into overdrive (for those with VPNs, at least, given that many have reported Facebook blocked again). 

The high esteem in which President Obama is held is made clear in Calvin Godfrey’s excellent  Asia Sentinel piece on waiting for the president in the rain outside Saigon’s DreamPlex where he addressed a large group of young entrepreneurs (full transcript here). President Obama responded to this adulation in kind, speaking often during his addresses of the bright future of Vietnam and the opportunities for partnership (particularly through the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

While he did meet with activists and noted that Washington was still concerned over Vietnam’s human rights record (noting that freedom of speech and assembly are, after all, actually enshrined in Vietnam’s own constitution), the message of the visit was of bright hopes for the future, more tight-knit cooperation and a generation of young entrepreneurs ready to do great things. 

However, the lead up to his visit has been a strange time in contemporary Vietnamese politics. As I noted in relation to the 'fish kill saga,' it is highly unusual for a government to announce a terrorist threat in the newspapers it oversees just days before the first US presidential visit in a decade. The potential for things to go wrong was large – possibly explaining why there were arrests before the president’s arrival. Facebook has been blocked at times, according to various anecdotal sources. The thousands-strong protests of early May, which saw arrests and violence, were blamed on Viet Tan, an overseas pro-democracy group that Hanoi still classes as a terrorist organisation (Viet Tan has condemned the lifting of the embargo). 

Elections for the National Assembly, the main legislative body in Vietnam, were held on Sunday. Citizens may vote for National Assembly candidates but as almost all are usually Communist Party members it is not typically a vibrant show of democracy. This year has been different, however, with musicians, comedians and other outsiders vying for National Assembly seats (Nguyen Quang A was another candidate). 

However there has been little mention of this by President Obama, despite many activists hoping he would bring up the government response to 100 tonnes of dead fish left on beaches after an apparent pollution accident from a Taiwanese steel mill. But the political and environmental crisis that swept up so many non-activists has seemingly been forgotten in favour of Obama-mania. If human rights and greater government transparency are important enough to mention in speeches, then wouldn’t a mention of their latest breaching be helpful? 

Vietnam does not like to be lectured by foreign powers. President Obama had to bring up human rights and freedom of speech, but alluding to the recent protests may have galvanised the citizenry, embarrassed the government and blocked that ‘road to normalisation’. As Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang said, Obama’s trip has ‘deepened mutual understanding’ and that ... ‘relations on the basis of friendship, equality, cooperation and respect for each other’s political regimes and legitimate interests is the only path leading to a brighter and more prosperous future’.

There is something else to consider – what of Cam Ranh Bay, the tremendous deepwater port in the centre of the country? The US would like military access to it, but the only nation currently allowed much more than a visit has been Russia. No announcement has been made and access is a far bigger bargaining chip than a few dissidents released and sent off to the US as proof of good government behaviour.  

Keeping relations friendly and uniting against a more aggressive China are mutual goals for the US and Vietnam. As for the Vietnamese people? They’ve taken a break from choosing fish, but even a president can’t be a distraction forever. 

Photo: Getty Images/Linh Pham

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