With little more than a half year to go in his presidency, U.S. President Barack Obama will press Asian leaders to formalize a trade pact during his planned weeklong trip across the Pacific.
Obama leaves Washington on Saturday night for the tour, which will include stops in Vietnam and Japan, where leaders of the Group of Seven will meet next week.
Aides have denied the trip is part of an apology tour, despite plans for the president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, where one of two U.S. atomic bombings at the end of World War II killed more than 192,000 people. He does not plan to apologize for the bombing, nor will he apologize for the Vietnam War, the White House has said.
Rather, Obama likely will be aiming to burnish his legacy, with expanding trade agreements a cornerstone.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is stalled in Congress, also is stalled in Japan. As he tries to convince Japanese lawmakers and citizens the TPP is a good deal, he needs to be careful not to appear to be putting U.S. jobs as risk, Roll Call pointed out. Other trade agreements also are expected to come up during the G-7 discussions.
“I think people in Japan will be looking to see what the president’s plan is to try to get this through in the lame-duck session, which will be important because all the major candidates now running are at least nominally opposed to the deal,” Michael Green, a former senior director for Asia policy at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, told Roll Call.
During his stop in Vietnam, Obama could push to have restrictions on arms sales to Hanoi lifted as part of his “pivot” to Asia that was intended to increase U.S. influence in the region to counter Chinese efforts to expand Beijing’s reach.
Murray Hiebert, deputy director and senior fellow of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Roll Call that lifting the restrictions could be seen as “another symbol of normalization.”
Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said during an on-the-record briefing ahead of the trip that no decision has been made on lifting the arms restrictions, but the issue is expected to come up for discussion between Obama and Vietnam’s leaders.
At the same time, the U.S. hopes to curb Vietnam’s illegal trade in wildlife by reducing tariffs on agriculture products and auto parts.
Rhodes said Obama will address “significant economic and commercial issues” with both Vietnam and Japan.
“I think what we want to demonstrate with this visit is a significant upgrade in the relationship between the United States and Vietnam as partners on many issues, even as we have areas of difference that will continue to be the case,” Rhodes said.
Rhodes said the visit to Hiroshima is an opportunity to “focus the world’s attention on the need to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and seek a world without them,” a position at odds with what presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has said. Trump has called for Japan and South Korea to have their own nuclear arsenals to curb the threat posed by North Korea.
Rhodes said, however, that Obama has no plans to make a major policy address on the nuclear issue during his visit, saying it’s not the proper venue.