The president will aim to highlight warming relations with Vietnam, where his trip begins in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, 41 years after the end of the Vietnam War. And Obama’s stop at Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, the first visit by a U.S. president to the site where the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, is intended to reinforce the strong alliance between the two World War II combatants.
“The quality of our relationships with both Vietnam and Japan just demonstrate how far we have come, from a difficult past, in forging constructive relationships,” said Ben Rhodes, a White House deputy national security adviser.
But Obama’s journey abroad comes at a time of continued global concerns over terrorism, with investigators uncertain about what caused an EgyptAir jetliner to crash into the Mediterranean Sea on Thursday with 66 people on board. Despite speculation, French and Egyptian investigators have not concluded that the plane was brought down by terrorists, and no group has claimed responsibility.
Last fall, Obama’s trip to Turkey, the Philippines and Malaysia was partially overshadowed by a terrorist attack in Paris that killed 130 people. Rhodes said the global response to terrorism will be on the agenda at the G-7 Summit.
Here’s a look at the rest of the president’s agenda:
Obama will open his trip in Hanoi with three bilateral meetings with Vietnam’s president, prime minister and general secretary of the Communist Party, reflecting the nation’s multi-headed leadership structure. He also will deliver an address to the Vietnamese people to highlight the warming ties between the two countries, aides said.
Among the areas of increased cooperation are the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free trade and regulatory accord that includes the United States and Vietnam, and a potential lifting of the U.S. arms sales ban to Vietnam that has been in place since the end of the war. The Obama administration eased the ban two years ago to help bolster Vietnam’s maritime security in the face of China’s growing military clout. The president has been weighing whether to fully repeal the ban — and there has been speculation that an announcement could come in Hanoi, though White House aide said this week that no decision had been reached.
“I think that administration is likely to go with a full lifting of the ban on lethal arms sales but the impact of that is certainly not going to be overnight,” said Richard Fontaine, a former foreign policy aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who now serves as president of the Center for a New American Security. The strengthening security relationship “is going to be a long-term kind of thing, but it’s got a strategic importance because of the psychological shift … also because it opens up possibilities that until right now have not been at hand.”
In Ho Chi Minh, Obama will meet with business leaders and entrepreneurs to discuss the trade deal, which has not yet been approved by Congress, and he will hold a town-hall-style meeting with young leaders from across Southeast Asia. Obama also will meet with civil society groups to emphasize the importance of human rights and free speech, areas of ongoing tension between Washington and Hanoi.
The annual leaders summit once included eight nations, but Russia was kicked out of the group two years ago after Russian troops annexed the Crimean Peninsula despite international condemnation. The summit is the primary reason for Obama’s trip to Asia, and it will include discussions of fiscal policy at a time of increasing concerns of a slowing global economy. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is the host of the meeting, has been eager to push back against growing populist calls in industrialized countries for protectionism, including in the United States, where presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has blasted trade deals as harmful to American workers.
“There has to be some voices against the danger of protectionism,” said Kenichiro Sasae, the Japanese ambassador to the United States. The G-7 leaders will promote the value of trade pacts such as the TPP, Sasae added, as a warning and important message to world.
Climate change, the security situation in Syria and the international campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups also will be on the agenda, officials said. Russia’s absence complicates matters, however, especially in Syria where Washington and Moscow have been involved in tenuous talks over a cessation of hostilities among Syrian government and opposition groups.
“Russia’s absence from this forum does not foreclose our ability to be engaged in regular dialogue with them about those issues,” Rhodes said. “And, in fact, we’ve been deeply engaged in discussions with Russia about the cessation of hostilities that we’ve sought to preserve within Syria.”
Obama’s visit to Peace Park, where he is expected to lay a wreath at the cenotaph marking the bombing, will be the emotional centerpiece of his trip. Aides said details are still be worked out, but they emphasized he will not deliver a major address. Rather, they said, Obama will offer reflections of his tour of the park, which includes the skeletal remains of a preserved government building known as the Genbaku Dome, or A-bomb dome.
The president is expected to renew his calls for nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament and to emphasize the security relationship between the United States and Japan nearly 71 years since the end of World War II. He also will put a spotlight on the human cost of war. An estimated 140,000 people were killed by the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, and 80,000 more perished after the United States dropped a second atomic weapon in Nagasaki three days later. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops were killed during combat operations in Europe, Japan and elsewhere, and an estimated 60 million people in total died during the war.