Guest Host: Indira Lakshmanan

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) walks with his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang (L) as they review a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on May 23.

U.S. President Barack Obama (C) walks with his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang (L) as they review a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on May 23.

Speaking with activists in Vietnam earlier today President Obama said “big nations should not bully smaller ones.” It was a reference to China’s role in the region, and some say, an important part of the rationale behind his move to lift the long standing ban on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam. That decision which he announced yesterday puts to rest the last remnant of the U.S. war there that ended 41 years ago. But critics of the president’s decision say Vietnam’s poor record on human rights should have made the country ineligible for U.S. military equipment. Please join us to discuss strengthening U.S.-Vietnam ties and security implications for the region.


  • Gardiner Harris White House correspondent, The New York Times
  • Celeste Drake Trade policy specialist, AFL-CIO
  • Doug Paal Vice president for studies, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Greg Poling Director, Asia maritime transparency initiative, fellow, Southeast Asia program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
  • Kurt Campbell Chairman and CEO, The Asia Group; former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs from 2009 to 2013.


  • 10:06:54

    MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANThanks for joining us. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. President Obama has said, for years, that he wants to shift America's attention away from Middle East wars and quagmires and pivot its resources to new economic opportunities and political partnerships in Asia. On his first official visit to Vietnam this week, the president is promoting free trade, witnessing deals signed with a U.S. corporate giant and lifting a ban on arm sales to Vietnam 41 years after America flew its last helicopters out of the vanquished city of Saigon.

  • 10:07:29

    MS. INDIRA LAKSHMANANJoining me to talk about the president's visit and what closer U.S./Vietnamese ties could mean for both Washington and Asia, Douglas Paal of the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, Celeste Drake of the AFL-CIO and Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Welcome to all of you.

  • 10:07:48

    MR. DOUG PAALGood morning.

  • 10:07:49

    MR. GREG POLINGThanks for having me.

  • 10:07:49

    MS. CELESTE DRAKEGood morning. Thanks for having us.

  • 10:07:50

    LAKSHMANANWe would also like to hear from you and throughout the hour, we'll be taking your comments, your questions. You can call us on 800-433-8850. You can send us an email to You can also join us on Facebook or Twitter. But first, joining us on the phone from Ho Chi Minh City, the city formerly known as Saigon, is Gardiner Harris, White House correspondent with the New York Times. Gardiner, you're with the president in Vietnam and we're reading that his reception there has been very warm. Tell us about it.

  • 10:08:26

    MR. GARDINER HARRISPeople who have traveled with the president pretty much in the entire seven and a half years said that they'd never seen this kind of reception before, except perhaps in Myanmar the first time he went there. There were tens of thousands of people on the streets at Ho Chi Minh City when we came in today lined up on both sides of the streets, two, three, four, five rows deep. They cheered and cheered and cheered and it was sort of like one of those wave things at sports stadiums.

  • 10:09:06

    MR. GARDINER HARRISAs soon as the cars went by, they would cheer and cheer and cheer. It was quite something and fairly emotional. The president went around the city, he had sort of a brief tour of the Jade Temple, one of the highlights of Ho Chi Minh City, and then, had a round table with entrepreneurs before heading back to his hotel.

  • 10:09:35

    LAKSHMANANWell, tell us quickly, Gardiner, what's the reason that his reception has been so, you know, such a warm embrace from a country that we were at war with just four decades ago.

  • 10:09:45

    HARRISSo polling shows that America, in Vietnam, is incredibly popular and part of the reason for that is that, first of all, this is an extremely young country. More than half of the population is under the age of 30. So for them, the Vietnam War or what they call the American War is fairly old history. Another reason is that there is a visceral hatred of China here. Pretty much all Vietnam's great heroes over the centuries and in fact over the millennia got to be heroes because they fought, defeated or were defeated by the Chinese.

  • 10:10:27

    HARRISAnd the Chinese, you know, there was a much more recent war between Vietnam and China in 1979 here. It was brief, but very bloody. And the Chinese have been pressuring the Vietnamese pretty steadily over the last several years, most prominently in 2014 when China parked a huge oil rig just off the coast here in waters claimed by Vietnam, but also claimed by China, to look for oil and gas. And it was -- this population, one of the things that we got wrong in the Vietnam War was failing to understand that Ho Chi Minh was fundamentally a nationalist, not so much a Communist.

  • 10:11:09

    HARRISAnd in that kind of balance between nationalism and communism, how it's a fiercely nationalistic place, is actually now going to our benefit because that fierce nationalism is now directed in a kind of visceral hatred to the Chinese who are challenging Vietnam's sovereignty in its waters right off the coast here. And so...

  • 10:11:35

    LAKSHMANANBut Gardiner, you're giving us some really important historical perspective there, which is valuable in understanding various things that the president has done, including lifting the arms embargo. What has the reaction been there to the president lifting the U.S. arms embargo after 41 years?

  • 10:11:53

    HARRISWell, so I mean, it's hard for me to sort of pull apart why this huge emotional reaction was here and whether it was about the arms embargo. I think that the Vietnamese really saw lifting the arms embargo as very important to them, as very important to the relationship. Human rights advocates really thought that that was a mistake because the Obama administration did not seek a quid pro quo. And, in fact, President Obama met with some civil society and human rights advocates today, earlier, and there were several people -- this was when we were still up in Hanoi.

  • 10:12:32

    HARRISThere were several of them who were unable to show because the government, essentially, intimidated them and prevented them from coming to this meeting. So there -- and that was somewhat embarrassing to the Obama administration. So there's clearly still a disconnect.

  • 10:12:43

    LAKSHMANANI mean, that's something that has happened in presidential trips, you know, dating back a couple decades, trips to China, for example, where dissidents get intimidated into staying home or literally blocked by the government. So I wonder, has the government, you know, when you see dissidents being blocked from meeting with President Obama, you know, how is he able to talk about human rights progress in that country?

  • 10:13:10

    HARRISWell, it is interesting. I mean, the administration was fairly defensive. John Kerry came out and spoke to us, the press pool there, and sort of pointed out that this country has made an enormous amount of progress, but that progress takes time. Human rights advocates say that the United States really should use the levers that it has, and the arms embargo was maybe one of the last big ones, to demand faster progress. And so -- but the administration sort of fundamentally believes that when it engages more closely with these countries, and it believe this in Cuba, it believed this in Myanmar, it believe this sort of most controversially in Iran, that when the United States engages more closely with countries that those countries progress.

  • 10:14:05

    HARRISAnd, you know, they point to the widespread adoption of the internet here. There's -- and they sort of quietly say, look, why should we punish Vietnam for their human rights abuses when China, the human rights abuses are far worse and we put no restrictions on our relationship with China. In fact, China has a $500 billion trading relationship with the United States. So but they're fairly defensive about this. And human rights advocates, of course, are very critical.

  • 10:14:39

    LAKSHMANANWell, we will drill down on those questions more with our panel here in the studio. But one last question for you, Gardiner, before I let you go, you're heading with the president now to Japan next for the G7 summit. Very briefly for us, outline the president's objectives and is the Asia pivot that he has talked about for so many years finally happening?

  • 10:15:00

    HARRISRight. Well, you know, just a couple of days before this trip, there -- the EgyptAir flight disappeared. There were fears, obviously, that that was a terrorist attack. Almost every time the president goes to Asia, there is some big event, some terror attack, something that happens in the Middle East that just distracts from his point, which is that it is Asia where the future of the United States economically, diplomatically and in many other ways, really resides and that the Middle East is this sort of terrible, bleeding distraction that doesn't give us anything.

  • 10:15:39

    HARRISI mean, we don't use its oil anymore. It's not a particularly economically vibrant place. It is nothing but a drain on us and that Asia is the future. Now, of course, one of the big issues that they're gonna discuss at the G7 is the North Korean nuclear program. And in many ways, that program is a much greater threat to the United States and to the entire region than ISIS is in Syria and Iraq because, you know, nuclear bombs can kill hundreds of thousands, millions of people, as opposed to terrorist attacks that tend to kill just dozens of people.

  • 10:16:17

    HARRISSo for both opportunity and risk to the United States, this administration believes that this region and this trip in particular are hugely important and far more important than what the focus often is, which is on these constant and grinding problems in the Middle East.

  • 10:16:38

    LAKSHMANANWell, as you say, these constant and grinding problems in the Middle East continue to rear their heads and no doubt at the G7 summit, the leaders will be talking about terrorism, about what happened with the EgyptAir crash and others. So just very quickly for us, Gardiner, is this pivot to Asia finally going to happen before President Obama leaves office?

  • 10:17:00

    HARRISWell, yes and no. I mean, as you know, the pivot to Asia was mostly aspirational than actual. It is both a diplomatic pivot. It's hopefully for them, an economic pivot and that's through the Transpacific Partnership agreement that has no chance of passing Congress at this point. And it's also a pivot in just basic attention. Now, with that, the president has been successful, you know. He has had, I think now, seven trips to Asia. He just, by coming to Asia, he is making the pivot.

  • 10:17:41

    HARRISAnd, of course, there has been some military equipment that has been transferred over in the Pacific region as well. So is it real? I think partly. It's not as much, I think, as the administration had hoped. The administration, obviously, has been pulled back toward -- because of Putin, pulled back toward Europe, because of ISIS, pulled back toward the Middle East. But they are trying their best.

  • 10:18:09

    LAKSHMANANAll right. We'll have to leave it there. Gardiner Harris, White House correspondent for the New York Times joining us by phone from Ho Chi Minh City with the president in Vietnam. Thank you so much, Gardiner. And listeners, please stay with us. We'll have more after a short break.

  • 10:20:02

    LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan sitting in for Diane Rehm. This hour we are talking about the president's visit to Vietnam, his first official visit there, and his trip to Asia and his efforts to pivot to Asia. We are going to be joined now by phone by Kurt Campbell, CEO of The Asia Group and former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under President Obama from 2009 to 2013. Kurt is also the author of the forthcoming book, "The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia." Welcome, Kurt.

  • 10:20:36

    MR. KURT CAMPBELLIt's great to be with you Indira. Thanks very much.

  • 10:20:38

    LAKSHMANANSo, Kurt, the title of your book refers to the Obama administration's plan to pivot attention to Asia. You were very much central to that effort when your old boss, Hillary Clinton, was secretary of state. But as we were talking about with Gardiner, crises in the Middle East always seemed to get in the way. Is this trip finally an effort to make that pivot real before President Obama leaves office?

  • 10:21:01

    CAMPBELLWell, look, there's no doubt this is going to be seen as a deeply historic trip, not just what's just transpired in Vietnam, but Secretary Kerry's visit and opening up further economic engagement with Myanmar and obviously the last stop, which will be this very memorable first visit of a president to Hiroshima. So I think the trip is deeply significant. But I have to agree with what we just heard, which that there are always challenges when the president or the secretary of state tries to accentuate this note that the lion's share of the history of the 21st century is going to be written in Asia and it's not just challenges that are taking place in the Middle East.

  • 10:21:45

    CAMPBELLIn fact, I'd argue that one of the biggest challenges we've faced is on the domestic, the home front. I can remember a couple of different trips canceled not because of, you know, developments in the Middle East, but concerns about the shutdown in Congress. And so I actually think one of the biggest challenges of this trip for the president is, you know, he's received this rapturous welcome in Vietnam and I think he will handle the difficult challenge of walking the line in Japan very effectively. But behind the scenes, Asian leaders are deeply concerned that, yes, of course, we are pivoting at the strategic level, but what's happening in our domestic politics?

  • 10:22:27

    CAMPBELLThey find what's going on at home -- questions about our alliances, about nuclear weapons, about trade -- is deeply unnerving to them because we have provided the basis for the operating system of Asia, which has given them 40 or 50 years of the best years of Asia's history. And if the United States starts to reevaluate that role, then all of that goes into doubt.

  • 10:22:50

    LAKSHMANANWell, there's a lot in your first answer there to unpack, Kurt.

  • 10:22:53

    CAMPBELLSo sorry.

  • 10:22:54

    LAKSHMANANAnd when you say, you know, you referred to our own domestic issues, you referred to the government shutdown some years ago being a cause for President Obama canceling a trip to Asia. And I remember, of course, he was supposed to be at the APEC summit in Bali and instead Secretary Kerry had to go in his place. And there were about a dozen of us journalists who were camped out with Kerry, very happily, more than a week in Bali. But it wasn't good for the United States that the president himself wasn't there.

  • 10:23:21

    LAKSHMANANSo tell us, you know, bring us more to the present where you made a reference to how the U.S. has provided the security architecture for Asia, by which, I think you mean the nuclear umbrellas over both Japan and South Korea. And then we have candidate Donald Trump talking about possibly dismantling that and letting them get their own nuclear weapons. So what kind of a message does that send to our allies?

  • 10:23:43

    CAMPBELLYes. So, thank you. I was with you on that trip but it was actually Secretary Clinton. But it was a terrible hardship duty for us to have to spend a week in Bali, but someone has to do that, Indira. I'd, look, I would say what the United States helps provide goes so far beyond just the security dimension that you describe. If you think of what makes Asia work, it is based on a series of shared understandings about peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation, the sanctity of trade and contracts. Many of these principles have basically undergirded the dramatic economic miracles of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and, most particularly, China.

  • 10:24:26

    CAMPBELLNow some of those issues are in dispute right now. And I think the idea that the president is seeking to underscore is that the United States needs to continue to play a strong, dynamic role across the board -- diplomacy, commercially, people-to-people, militarily, strategically -- to underscore our enduring interest in the region as a whole. So in that respect, I actually think the pivot or the rebalance, as many prefer, has actually been quite successful. And it's proceeding in fits and starts.

  • 10:24:59

    CAMPBELLAnd we have to acknowledge that we just -- we simply, Indira, we can't cut and run from the Middle East. We have -- we're deeply engaged there. And many of these countries in Asia have actually supported us in what we've done in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere. And they look too how we conduct ourselves there to get a sense of our staying power, our commitment, our reliability in Asia. So the real challenge of diplomacy over the course of the next 10 to 20 years is not this sort of abrupt change in direction, but a nuanced rebalancing of American commitment that finds more time for Asia at a time that its significance in global politics is undeniably rising.

  • 10:25:42

    LAKSHMANANAll right. Last, quick question for you, Kurt. As the U.S. searches for new economic opportunities in this huge continent, where the vast majority of the world's population lives, and also for new political partnerships and alliances, how important to that pivot is the U.S. free trade deal, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership? And do you see any hope for that being approved under President Obama?

  • 10:26:06

    CAMPBELLYeah, I'm probably a little bit more hopeful than what we just heard. I think it's undeniably challenging. But I think the president and his team have made clear about why this is important for America's strategic purpose. I'd argue that the most important thing that the United States can do over the course of the next several years is implement the TPP. Our ticket to the big game is undeniably our security and defense posture in Asia. But Asians look to the United States to have the confidence and the capability and optimism to engage commercially and economically in Asia. And so this will be a test of our resolve and our determination. And I believe that we will summon the political will and skill to get this through.

  • 10:26:55

    CAMPBELLI know that that is not a widely held view at this time. But I will say, almost every trade agreement in our history has gone through the longest, darkest tunnel before the glimmer of light at the end. And we're in the middle of that tunnel now. And I'm hopeful that we can just see that pinpoint of light ahead that will steer us towards what is undeniably the most important region and set of opportunities for the United States lying on the horizon.

  • 10:27:22

    LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, both of your -- your boss Hillary Clinton and the current Secretary of State John Kerry have spent a lot of time in Asia, including in Bali, as we both talked about. That is Kurt Campbell, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • 10:27:37

    CAMPBELLThank you, Indira. Have a good show. I really appreciate it.

  • 10:27:40

    LAKSHMANANThanks. All right. So to our panel here in the room, so many questions raised by what our other guests have already said. Doug, I want to start out with you by asking about this decision to lift the arms embargo on Vietnam. It was supposed to be contingent on human rights progress by Vietnam. Did that happen?

  • 10:28:06

    PAALWell, I -- as in the case of the United States opening its relationship with China, the strategic imperative to strengthen the relationship between Vietnam and the United States at a time when China's pushing its neighbors hard overwhelms the concerns that people have about human rights and it causes the government to try to balance its interests. The fact is that it's not an either-or, on-off switch. When every important arms transaction takes place, it's submitted to Congress and Congress gets to vote on it. And in the preambular language to the law, the Congress must consider human rights matters.

  • 10:28:44

    PAALSo it's not out of the equation. It's just been, at this moment, assigned a second priority to that of building a cooperative, military-to-military relationship with Vietnam that will make Vietnam more robust in its defenses against pressures from China.

  • 10:28:58

    LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, Celeste, take us back a little bit and explain to us what are the kinds of restrictions on political freedoms that Vietnamese activists had hoped the U.S. would focus on before lifting any arms embargo. We heard about some of them being blocked from meeting the president today, but what other kinds of restrictions on liberties are we talking about?

  • 10:29:17

    DRAKEVirtually every kind of restriction that you can think of. There really is no right to freedom of expression, no right to freedom of association, no right to freedom of assembly, no right to freedom of religion in Vietnam. And just in the past year, there were some high-profile incidents where bloggers were arrested and their freedom of speech was obviously violated. And certainly, the government of Vietnam has made a number of promises regarding workers' rights improvements in the context of the TPP. But if you look carefully at those promises, for instance, the critical one to workers who would like better wages and working conditions, is freedom of association. And even that promise is phased in over five years.

  • 10:30:02

    DRAKESo if the TPP were to go into effect, Vietnam would get 100 percent of the benefits promised to it in the TPP, even though it would not have to comply with the rights of working people for the first five years.

  • 10:30:16

    LAKSHMANANAll right. Greg Poling, tell us, does this -- everything that Celeste has said, does that mean that democratic reform in Vietnam is not actually a priority for the Obama administration?

  • 10:30:26

    POLINGWell, reforming Vietnamese human rights is. If by democratic reform you mean regime change, then no. And that's part of the message that was sent here. Vietnamese leadership has for years been demanding that this restriction be lifted precisely because it seems to single out Vietnam unfairly.

  • 10:30:42

    LAKSHMANANBut I didn't actually mean regime change. I actually meant human rights and civil liberties of Vietnamese people, which was also supposed to be part of the precursor to lifting the embargo.

  • 10:30:52

    POLINGThen, no, that still reigns a priority. The U.S. leadership will continue to hector Vietnamese leaders every time they meet, just as the U.S. pushes for all around the world. But the fact is that Vietnam's human rights situation has improved in recent years. And so that's right, there are enormous problems, particularly on freedom of expression. But it is not the worst in the region. It is not the worst in the world. And yet it is just about the only country that faces this kind of restriction. This was not about human rights, it was about historical baggage and it was time that we dropped it.

  • 10:31:22

    LAKSHMANANHuman Rights Watch, of course, recently called Vietnam a police state. But your point is that it's not worse than some other states. Maybe you're comparing it to Myanmar, China. I mean, tell me, where do you think Vietnam ranks within the spectrum of regimes in Asia that do restrict citizens' rights?

  • 10:31:42

    POLINGRight around the middle. But, look, we do not look at human rights as absolutes, right? We do not refuse to engage with countries until they're Scandinavian democracies. We look at this as who is making progress and who is regressing. Vietnam has been making progress, albeit, very unevenly. And Celeste points out what I think is understandable skepticism on the labor rights issues in TPP. But Vietnam, a one-party state, part of whose legitimacy rests on controlled labor, is saying they are willing to allow free unionization. That's a huge step. Whereas, you look at our allies like Thailand and they're falling back. So I think you have to recognize the trajectory, not whether or not they're suddenly a shining beacon on the hill.

  • 10:32:21

    LAKSHMANANWell, you're making the bridge for us between human rights changes and labor laws, the allowing of unions to the economy. So let's talk about Vietnam's economy. How much foreign investment is it attracting today and from whom?

  • 10:32:35

    POLINGWell, it's one of the most booming markets in Asia. I mean, it -- in both high-tech manufacturing services as well as lower-end manufacturing. So because of lower labor costs, it's getting an enormous amount of manufacturing on apparel and things that formerly went to China, including the U.S. Many apparel makers in the U.S. are shifting their investment from China to Vietnam.

  • 10:32:55

    POLINGAnd then on the hiring scale, they're doing quite well. Samsung is an enormous investor. They're producing pieces, you know, the high-tech components for computers, for cameras, for everything else. And they've even got their own Silicon Valley starting up, where you've got, you know, software makers, computer companies. The guy that created Flappy Bird was Vietnamese.

  • 10:33:15

    LAKSHMANANI read that Vietnam has attracted more than $10 billion annually in foreign direct investment over the last several years, with Japan and South Korea in the lead, seeking to diversify their manufacturing bases away from China.

  • 10:33:30

    LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join our conversation, you can call us anytime at 1-800-433-8850. You can also send us an email to or connect with us on Facebook or Twitter. You know, Greg, I'm thinking about how President Obama and his Vietnamese counterpart were at the signing of this multibillion-dollar agreement with the U.S. power giant G.E. yesterday. How much of this is about U.S. companies wanting to get a piece of the pie that other countries have already gotten?

  • 10:34:09

    POLINGWell, a lot of it. But the U.S. companies have not been really restricted from investment in Vietnam. I mean, the restriction here that was lifted was about arms sales. G.E. has been a huge partner in Vietnam for years now. You also had a very large agreement made with Boeing. I mean, U.S. companies, just like European and Korean and Japanese counterparts, see Vietnam as a major frontier market and they plan to jump in. The big value here, of course, with the TPP is that it lets the U.S. take a bit of an edge over other competitors. And if the U.S. is going to play a major role in the economics of Asia, that's very important.

  • 10:34:41

    LAKSHMANANDoug Paal, Israel is now talking about selling Hanoi drones. The U.K. has said it is keen to sell arms to Vietnam. So could the lifting of the U.S. embargo now be a boon for U.S. arms manufacturers as well?

  • 10:34:54

    PAALWell, I think they're hoping that that's the case. But people have realistic expectations. Vietnam is long tied to Russian supply lines. They've tried to diversify that. They've got a big order of Swedish ships coming their way as well as Russian submarines. Switching over to American systems is going to be complicated, because you have to have logistics and training backstops for all of that.

  • 10:35:16

    PAALOn the other hand, China also uses Russian equipment and so China understands these weapon systems. And it would be better for Vietnam to have American technology on guidance, weapon systems, monitoring systems, you mentioned drones, drones for surveillance of the maritime territories that they're conflicted over. It'll give them long-range radars from the United States and integrated circuitry to better guide the weapon systems that they have.

  • 10:35:43

    LAKSHMANANAll right. Let's talk about politics now. What kind of a signal is President Obama sending to China by lifting the arms embargo that goes way beyond economics?

  • 10:35:51

    PAALWell, you know, we do have a very severe embargo on China. And so right there, there's a big gap between what we do with Vietnam and what we do with China. The Chinese are quite cynically observing all of this. I read the press this morning from Beijing and it was saying, this is an effort by the U.S. to continue its policy of, quote, unquote, "containment" of China by strengthening people -- countries that are -- have long histories of resistance to Chinese pressure on their periphery. It's not a game changer, it's just more of the same in their view.

  • 10:36:22

    LAKSHMANANWell, you know, you, of course, did serve as our de facto ambassador to Taiwan. I know you read Chinese. So getting into the head of China, you say that their reaction has been to sort of push it off and say this is just part of a long history of trying to contain China. But talk to us about China's expansion in the South China Sea and its military provocations. Why does this matter to the U.S.?

  • 10:36:44

    PAALWell, the U.S. is concerned that China is moving slowly toward declaring that the South China Sea is a lake of China's and that they can control the access to that area, whether by military or commercial vessels. China says it'll always keep it commercially open. But there's a big question about their willingness to tolerate military operations near territories they claim or at large in the South China Sea.

  • 10:37:07

    PAALBut China's not only playing a military game in this. They've also got the South China -- they have a -- there's one belt -- one road concept which is going to offer Vietnam commercial integration with China, better markets and infrastructure connections.

  • 10:37:24

    LAKSHMANANAll right. Well, hold that thought. We will come back to it. We have to take a short break now. When we come back, we'll be talking more about stronger U.S. ties with Vietnam and what it means for the Asia pivot. Stay with us.

  • 10:40:01

    LAKSHMANANWelcome back. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm, and this hour we're talking about President Obama's visit to Vietnam, warming relations and what this all means for the administration's effort to make a pivot to Asia. Joining me here in the studio, Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Celeste Drake, trade policy specialist at the AFL-CIO and Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

  • 10:40:32

    LAKSHMANANSo I want to go to a listener email from Bill in D.C., who says in comparing our relationship with China to our relationship with Vietnam, Gardiner Harris, he's referring to the White House correspondent for the New York Times who joined us earlier, said we have no trade restrictions with China despite their human rights record. That's actually not the case, writes our caller. The U.S. maintains a comprehensive regulatory prohibition on the sale of military equipment and technology by U.S. companies to China. The new deal with Vietnam will allow U.S. companies to sell products and services to Vietnam that will not be allowed for sale to China for at least decades to come. I think that's something that you, Doug Paal, were clarifying before our break.

  • 10:41:12

    PAALThat's essentially correct.

  • 10:41:13

    LAKSHMANANThat we don't have military -- that kind of military trade with China. We also have a listener, Tim, in McLean, Virginia, who says Obama has been trying to pivot to Asia since he entered office. Ignoring or wishing away problems in the Middle East doesn't make them go away. Focusing on Asia also has the negative effect of antagonizing China and creating more problems. Well, that is something we can discuss.

  • 10:41:39

    LAKSHMANANSo Doug, I want to ask you, we were talking about the U.S. wishes to maintain freedom of navigation in the Pacific and how all of this has been riled up by China trying to assert claims on disputed rocks and territories with many of its neighbors, including Vietnam and the Philippines and many others. Tell us a bit more.

  • 10:42:01

    PAALWell, back in the 1990s, when China signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, it and 15-or-so other countries introduced a reservation to their signing, several reservations, but the one that matters here is they said that any country that has a navy or air force that operates through the areas denoted by the exclusive economic zone, 200 nautical miles out from their sovereign territory, would have to get permission before doing any military operations.

  • 10:42:28

    PAALThe U.S. would never have agreed to that, nor would other maritime powers have agreed to that, in the Convention on the Law of the Sea. So we have a difference there. Then you compound because the Chinese have ambiguous claims in the region. They might get more clear and less pleasant over time, but right now we're trying to make it clear o the Chinese that we're not going to yield on freedom of navigation. Our ships are going to go when and where they can legally.

  • 10:42:51

    LAKSHMANANAll right, quick question, Doug. You're a China specialist who worked at the White House under Presidents Reagan and George HW Bush. Vietnam and China at the time were bosom allies when you were in government briefly. What about now?

  • 10:43:02

    PAALWell when I was in the government, actually they had a war between Vietnam and China.

  • 10:43:08

    LAKSHMANANWell that's true, too.

  • 10:43:08

    PAALPrior to that they had an alliance.

  • 10:43:09

    LAKSHMANANThat's true, prior to that.

  • 10:43:10

    PAALAnd it was an alliance that was intended by the Vietnamese to get what they could to defeat the French and then the United States so that they could unify the country under their own rule. That has changed, and they've reverted to type now, which is that over thousands of years, the Vietnamese and the Chinese have been at odds. They have learned to work with each other because they're not going to be separated like Siamese twins, they're stuck with each other, but there's always going to be this competition and cooperation mixed.

  • 10:43:37

    LAKSHMANANAll right, Greg, you go there regularly. Tell us briefly, what is life like in Vietnam today?

  • 10:43:43

    POLINGWell, it's a different world, I think, than what people think of when they think of Vietnam, or at least what we think of when we think of Vietnam pre-1990s, 1980s. It was telling when we hear Gardiner point out that the majority of Vietnamese citizens are under the age of 30. They have no recollection of the Vietnam War. They grew up in the era post (unintelligible) post economic reform and economic opening.

  • 10:44:06

    POLINGFor them, the U.S. is not an adversary, the U.S. is not an imperialist power. The U.S. is a capitalist partner and one to be emulated, and while they are technically still a one-party state and still a communist nation, for the average Vietnamese that means less than nothing. They are concerned with economic development, bread and butter issues, just like anybody else. And as Doug pointed out, their number one concern is their neighbor to the north, not the U.S.

  • 10:44:29

    LAKSHMANANAll right, and as you say, they welcome Americans. All right, well let's go to the phones. Let's take a call from Justin in Cincinnati, Ohio. Justin, you're on the air.

  • 10:44:36

    JUSTINHi, hi, thanks so much for taking my call, I'm a big fan of the show.

  • 10:44:39

    LAKSHMANANAbsolutely, thanks.

  • 10:44:40

    JUSTINI just wanted to add a comment. One of the questions earlier was just the reception of Obama and Vietnam, and I had an opportunity to live in Ho Chi Minh City for a year and a half, particularly in 2012 and 2013, right around re-election time for Obama. And it was very interesting, as we were landing in Ho Chi Minh City, my wife and myself, we're both African-American, and a lot of times the locals would be at the airport or in taxicabs, would say oh, you look like Michelle Obama, or they'd say Obama.

  • 10:45:12

    JUSTINSo the locals were very familiar with Obama, whether or not they follow politics, really what he represented in terms of the hope and change, and that young population really just has a desire to just move forward. And the angst of the Vietnam War, or the American War, as one of the panelists said, really is something that the country, particularly in the south, is moving forward from, and it's something that we in America are still holding onto.

  • 10:45:40

    LAKSHMANANAll right, well thank you so much, Justin. He makes some good points. Greg, tell us, you know, based on what the caller is saying, based on what you've seen, how do you see the prospects ahead for the future relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam. Could they become one of our allies in the region?

  • 10:45:54

    POLINGYeah, there is going to be a ceiling to how fast and how far we can go, but clearly the trajectory is all positive. The average Vietnamese looks at the U.S. in an extremely positive light. They look at China in an extraordinarily negative light. They see in the U.S. a symbol of what, you know, change, what reform, what democratic governments can be, as well as what economic progress can be.

  • 10:46:14

    LAKSHMANANAll right, let's go to another call. We've got Hugh from Durham, North Carolina, on the line. Go ahead.

  • 10:46:21


  • 10:46:23


  • 10:46:24

    HUGHI'm disturbed by what's happening in the relationship between the United States and Vietnam. There seems to be no real meaningful action to change their human rights record, which according to Human Rights Watch is terrible. And, you know, if they have changed during the past 45 years, it would make much sense to be doing what we're doing, but they have not changed. In fact, they limited the dissidents. They refused to put some dissidents on the panel to talk with President Obama. I mean, that's a clear statement of how they feel about human rights.

  • 10:47:01

    LAKSHMANANNow Hugh, you have some exposure to Vietnamese people firsthand?

  • 10:47:05

    HUGHI do. I've had a great deal of exposure with four different families for about eight years here in Durham, North Carolina. And the tales they tell me of what's happening to their relatives in Vietnam, for example there's a young woman, 22, who was pregnant and beaten, knocked off her bicycle because of her religious convictions. She's over here and denied medical treatment for a serious blood conviction.

  • 10:47:32

    HUGHShe's over here now. Her husband's in prison. And there are examples of Vietnamese who have attained American citizenship going over to Vietnam and being harassed by the police.

  • 10:47:45

    LAKSHMANANAll right, well those are some disturbing points made by Hugh, Celeste, what about what the caller says about restrictions against Vietnamese? And he's concerned about the future relationship, maybe even the effective TPP.

  • 10:47:58

    DRAKEWe share those concerns, and when Kurt mentioned earlier that -- regarding the TPP that the U.S. is using the levers that it has to address human rights, we take the opposite perspective and essentially say the U.S. is giving away these levers. By giving away access to the U.S. market in the TPP, which is what Vietnam desperately wants, we've lost a lever by which to try to persuade the government of Vietnam to improve its human rights and its labor rights practices.

  • 10:48:33

    DRAKEAnd while yes, it's true that the government of Vietnam agreed to make these promises, as we've learned time and again through trade agreements with Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, it's quite one thing to promise that you will improve the practice of labor and human rights, and it's quite another to actually do so. So promises in the international sphere mean very little, and if you allow the confiscation of educational materials for unions or simply change the terms under which you're arresting somebody, so it's not for illegal union activity, but it's for violation of freedom of speech, you haven't accomplished anything in terms of really opening up economic freedoms to the workers of Vietnam.

  • 10:49:16

    LAKSHMANANWell, we have a similar question from another listener, Fred in Fresh Meadows, Queens, New York, who wants to know what about the fact that workers in Vietnam have low pay and bad conditions themselves. How can we in good conscience ratify the TPP when we're losing more and more jobs at home?

  • 10:49:31

    DRAKEIt's true that we are already competing with these workers in Vietnam. The problem with the TPP is then it locks in that access, and it takes away the tariffs that we currently have on U.S.-Vietnam trade. So it opens it up to broader competition and in fact provides an incentive through rights for investors under the TPP for U.S. companies to choose to invest there and produce there. And it was previously mentioned the wages in Vietnam are about a third of those in China, and so it's becoming sort of the next low-cost destination.

  • 10:50:07

    DRAKEAnd if we are not ensuring that the U.S. uses its economic might to give more rights to Vietnamese workers, then what we have is a situation where we're enhancing offshoring rather than combating it.

  • 10:50:20

    LAKSHMANANDoug Paal, are you a supporter of the TPP, and do you think that it would help the U.S. economically? I'm also curious what effect it would have on China's economic prospects since part of the reason for the TPP seems to be to prevent China from dominating the region.

  • 10:50:35

    PAALThe TPP is strategically vital to the future of the United States and Asia, and if you want to believe in the pivot or rebalance, it is absolutely critical to the success of the rebalance. The U.S. will gain. The TPP opens markets that are not supervised by previous trade agreements that involve trade barriers at the border. It gets into those societies and opens them to services, which are high-value opportunities for American businesses who lead in the world of services.

  • 10:51:06

    PAALSo this is a good thing economically and a good thing strategically for the United States.

  • 10:51:10

    LAKSHMANANAnd as for China, will it be in effect containing China's economic rise or economic domination of the continent, which has been China's continuing complaint about it?

  • 10:51:21

    PAALWell President Obama has talked a little bit in those terms, and I think it's a misleading line of argument. China itself, if it continues with the reforms it says it's going to make, will in three to five years want very much itself to be part of TPP to unlock the services benefits for its population and employment.

  • 10:51:38

    LAKSHMANANI'm Indira Lakshmanan, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. We have a caller on the line, Phillip from Ocala, Florida. Phillip, go ahead.

  • 10:51:51

    PHILLIPGood morning, how are you?

  • 10:51:52

    LAKSHMANANGood morning, I'm very well, thank you.

  • 10:51:55

    PHILLIPOkay, I just -- I don't really have a question. Vietnam veteran. After World War II -- I'm also a history buff, we build up Japan to make them prosperous. We build up Germany, and of course they are very prosperous. Why not Vietnam, considering we never had a declared war, and we were terrible to them. All the average Vietnamese wanted during the '50s and the '60s between the French and the Americans was to have food on their table. They could care less who was in charge.

  • 10:52:31

    PHILLIPSo we talk about human rights, and in Ocala, Florida, we have a local ban on transgender in bathrooms in high schools. This is just ridiculous.

  • 10:52:43

    LAKSHMANANAll right, thank you so much, Phillip. So he supports the new relationship with Vietnam. You know, tell us what your thoughts are.

  • 10:52:55

    POLINGI think what we -- what was just highlighted is the fact that for the majority of Americans and the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese, it's time to put our historical baggage behind us. We began normalizing this relationship 21 years ago. This is if not the final then a pretty big step to say -- and largely a symbolic gesture to say that we are now a normalized partnership, and I think one of the things that's been not reported nearly enough is that along with these commercial deals that were signed during President Obama's trip, we also signed a deal to allow the Peace Corps to enter Vietnam for the first time.

  • 10:53:24

    POLINGWe've been pushing this for 20 years. the Vietnamese have been hesitant, worried that the Peace Corps is, you know, some kind of fifth column. Nothing builds up a partnership between nations more than having 20-some-year-old Americans living and working with 20-something-year-old Vietnamese.

  • 10:53:38

    LAKSHMANANAnd Greg, you've seen a lot of that, obviously, a lot of -- not the Peace Corps but a lot of 20-some Vietnamese on your trips. As you say, half the population is under the age of 30, wanting and seeking partnerships with Americans, be they cultural, economic or political.

  • 10:53:53

    POLINGThat's right.

  • 10:53:54

    LAKSHMANANAll right, let's take one more call from Joe in Gainesville, Florida. Joe, go ahead.

  • 10:53:58

    JOEYes, hello.

  • 10:53:59


  • 10:53:59

    JOEI'd like to ask, does the Vietnamese -- are we -- does the United States view Vietnam as a point where we can -- I'm sorry, excuse me.

  • 10:54:17

    LAKSHMANANThat's all right. Joe I think wanted to ask about whether -- whether Vietnam could be a counterbalance to China's aggressive tendencies, and he was asking about the domino effect. Doug, can you take his question?

  • 10:54:31

    PAALWell, Vietnam is on the front line with China, and they've got this complicated relationship where they want to keep the Chinese respectful of Vietnam's prerogatives and at the same time profit from their economic relationship. But that's true of 14 countries that border China, and one of the great challenges for the United States going forward, as we lose our relative dominance in the Western Pacific as China rises, is how to motivate the countries on China's periphery to cooperate with the international system, to promote rule of law, peaceful settlement and stand counter to pressures from China if -- on those occasions when China pushes them around.

  • 10:55:07

    LAKSHMANANAll right, well last thoughts, bringing the conversation back to the United States, how it would help the U.S. to have stronger relations with Vietnam within Asia. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have of course both attacked the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Hillary Clinton, who when she was secretary of state called it the gold standard for trade deals, has now pulled back on her support of the deal. So quick lightning round from each of you. I want to know what you think the prospects are for TPP being approved even after November, since all of the candidates for president have criticized it. Celeste?

  • 10:55:35

    DRAKEI would say based on last week's publication of the ITC report about the TPP, the prospects are even lower. The U.S. government's own study says it's going to make our trade deficit worse. It's going to reduce manufacturing output and manufacturing jobs, and it's a mistake.

  • 10:55:49

    LAKSHMANANAll right, Greg Poling.

  • 10:55:51

    POLINGI disagree. I mean, the ITC report said that there are obviously going to be winners and losers, there are with any trade, but it will have a marginally positive impact on the economics of the U.S. But the point is it wasn't -- it's not fundamentally about what it does for the GDP of the U.S. It's about the geopolitical win here, that the U.S. gets to set the rules of the road.

  • 10:56:08

    POLINGI think it's got a moderate chance, perhaps, in the lame duck session. If it doesn't get done then, then we're looking out a minimum of two years.

  • 10:56:15

    LAKSHMANANBecause of the criticism we've seen from all the presidential candidates. Douglas Paal, do you agree?

  • 10:56:19

    POLINGPretty much. The recent pattern is that these, when they're delayed into the end of an administration, they get kicked into the next administration, and then they, coming into office, declare they have some new standards that need to be met, and they find a way to meet them because this is -- these agreements are too important to the economy and to our strategic position to allow them to lie fallow.

  • 10:56:39

    LAKSHMANANThat's Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here in Washington and a former White House official and former Charge d'affaires in Taiwan. Also joining us, Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And Celeste Drake, trade policy specialist for the AFL-CIO. Thank you so much for all of you for joining us, and thank you for all of our listeners for tuning in. I'm Indira Lakshmanan, sitting in for Diane Rehm.

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