There are photo-ops and there are photo-ops. Most are mere ceremony, shows of bilateral friendship, chances for the lesser to be seen with the greater, vote-getting poses.
But the image of President Barack Obama shaking hands with President Tran Dai Quang in front of a large bronze bust of Vietnamese Communist Leader Ho Chi Minh inside the Presidential Palace in Hanoi was a photo-op of a different order.
In the photo, Ho, the one-time implacable adversary of the U.S., looks directly out over the heads of his successors, serene if not joyous in triumph. Under his leadership, Vietnam ousted first the French and then the Americans in a bloodbath that lasted over two decades, proving that ideological fanaticism could beat the best the technological West could send in against him.
Under the steady gaze of Ho, Obama and Quang gave historic substance to the picture-taking. Obama said the United States was fully lifting the ban on the sale of arms to Vietnam, and they also witnessed the signing of a record $11.3 billion procurement deal for a hundred 737 jets between Boeing and the local airline VietJet.
The U.S. conditioned the new era of friendly relations on a friendlier attitude on the part of the dictators in Hanoi toward political dissidents. The Vietnamese have promised to go easier, but nobody expects a dramatic change, at least not in the short term.
On the very day of Air Force One’s landing, elections for the National Assembly were concluded that demonstrated the absolute control of the communist party over the state. Almost all of the 900 candidates were party nominees, a mere 11 were listed as independents, according to official data.
Also on Monday, a BBC correspondent in the country said he had been ordered by Vietnamese authorities to stop reporting, apparently because he was suspected of meeting with a critic of the government. Vietnam’s foreign ministry had no comment.
Victory over the foreign invaders left the proletariat in iron fetters. But there are indications that better relations with the U.S. will bring at least some flexibility. As U.S. trade representative Michael Froman said in a briefing, “Vietnam has agreed to allow independent unions that can control their own finances, elect their own leaders, conduct strikes, affiliate as they wish, get assistance from outside labor organizations.” They did not say when.
Changes are evident already, if more from the bottom up than the top down. Indeed, as in every country where communism has had a chance to run everything into the ground, the people are eager for capitalism and freedom.
Almost all Vietnamese people — 95 percent of them — now support capitalism, according to 2014 Pew Research poll. Remarkably, that was the highest rate of 45 countries polled; the only one to break 90 percent. Even in the United States only 70 percent agreed that a free market is the best kind of economy.
The government gave up long ago on its miserable experiments in collectivized farms and bans on private enterprise. Streets once filled with bicycles are now clogged with cars and motorcycles. And it was no surprise that this week local businesses were using pictures of a smiling Obama to sell their products. Capitalistic counterpoint to the visage of Ho.
Of course, the presidential visit is not just about bringing freedom and prosperity to Vietnam. It’s about China.
“Nobody has any illusions,” said Evan Medeiros, Obama’s former Asia adviser. “This trip sends important signals to China about U.S. activism in the region and growing U.S. concern about Chinese behavior.”
Just last Tuesday, Chinese fighter jets accosted a U.S. military reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea in what the Pentagon called an “unsafe” intercept.
The Vietnamese have good reason to worry about Chinese expansionism. In 2014, China set up a mammoth deep-sea drilling rig to explore for oil and gas right off the Vietnamese coast, and when Vietnamese officials called to complain, Beijing didn’t even bother to return their calls. The confrontation touched off angry protests in Vietnam.
Washington wants closer military cooperation, including increased visits by U.S. warships and possibly access to the strategic harbor at Cam Ranh Bay, U.S. officials say.
But inducing Hanoi to enter the U.S. ring of containment around China will not be so easy. Vietnam is heavily dependent on China economically, even for the water that flows into the vital Mekong Delta. And since a brief war with China in 1979, Vietnam has sought to avoid further brush-ups over Chinese assertions of hegemony in the region.
Closure on the painful events of the past will not come so easily, either. Reports of the Obama visit have been accompanied in the U.S. media by some of the most agonizing images from the Vietnam war — of wounded American soldiers, screaming Vietnamese children, and of the desperate, last escapees from the communist onslaught climbing the ladder to an American helicopter on the rooftop of the embassy in Saigon.
There was also a singularly bitter comment from a senior editor of The Washington Post, who wrote: “Clink those glasses, style and profile, don’t pass up a good photo-op. But don’t you dare forget those Americans who did Washington’s bidding only to return home in body bags or in ambulances…”
We cannot disagree with deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, who said, “The very fact that the United States is traveling to…Vietnam, which is an emerging partner of ours, demonstrates how you are able to move beyond difficult history.”
Yes, you are able; and yes, you must. But not without pain.