U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday headed for his first visit to Vietnam, a trip officially aimed at sealing the transformation of an old enemy into a new partner to help counter China's growing assertiveness in the region and viewed by veteran communists in the Asian nation as an attempt by Washington to undermine their one-party rule.
However, there is no apology planned by Obama for the massive U.S. bombing of the Asian nation that killed over 3.6 million people, injured over 5 million, left close to 900,000 children orphans and turned 200,000 women into prostitutes, apart from spraying millions of hectares with highly toxic pesticides that affected over 4 million people. The U.S. intervention also left a million women widowed and 11 million people displaced.
But four decades after the Vietnam war that deeply divided opinion in America, Obama aims to boost defense and economic ties with the country's communist rulers while also prodding them on human rights, aides say.
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His visit has been preceded by a debate in Washington over whether Obama should use the three-day visit starting Monday to roll back an arms embargo on Hanoi, one of the last vestiges of wartime animosity.
That would make Beijing uncomfortable, because its government resents U.S. efforts to forge stronger military bonds with its neighbors amid rising tensions in the disputed South China Sea. But there was no immediate word of a final U.S. decision on the issue.
Vietnam's government earlier this month said lifting the embargo would show mutual trust and that buying arms from its partners was "normal".
Bilateral U.S.-Vietnam trade has swelled 10 times over since ties were normalized in 1995 to around US$45 billion now. Vietnam is Southeast Asia's biggest exporter to the United States, with textiles and electronics the largest volumes.
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Washington wants Vietnam to open up on the economic front and move closer militarily, including increased visits by U.S. warships and possibly access to the strategic harbor at Cam Ranh Bay, U.S. officials say.
While Vietnam wants warmer ties, some among the party's old guard remain suspicious that the U.S. endgame is to undermine their one-party rule.
On May 27, Obama is also scheduled to visit Japan, where he is expected to visit Hiroshima. Again, he has no plans to apologize for the nuclear bombing there.