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During Obama's Asia Trip, Expect To Hear A Lot About 'Rebalancing'


Now it's time for Words You'll Hear. That's how we take a look at a story of the coming week by parsing some of the words associated with that story. This week's word is rebalance. That's because President Obama just arrived in Vietnam on the first leg of a trip emphasizing a rebalancing of foreign policy toward Asia. Joining us to talk about the president's visit is Michael Sullivan, who covers Southeast Asia for NPR. He's in Hanoi. Michael, welcome. Thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: So what does rebalancing mean? And what is the administration saying about the importance of it? And how does Vietnam fit into that?

SULLIVAN: Well, we've been talking about the administration's pivot toward Asia for years now. But this pivot has been overshadowed or delayed, if you will, by events on the ground elsewhere - the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the civil war in Syria, the fight against ISIS. So the pivot, which denotes something that happens quickly, is being rebranded now.

And we're talking about rebalancing, but it's pretty much the same thing. And it's a pretty big deal because Asia is a pretty big deal. It's a big market economically, and the president will be pushing the Trans-Pacific trade agreement while he's here.

And then, of course, there's the elephant in the room - or the dragon in the room, if you will - and that's China and its assertiveness in the South China Sea. That bothers Vietnam and its neighbors quite a bit. There have been clashes between the two countries in the past couple of years. And it bothers the U.S., too. As China continues to reclaim those disputed reefs, they can build airfields on them - military-grade airfields. So it's in both the U.S. and Vietnam's interest to find common ground in containing China, and that's part of this rebalancing.

MARTIN: And I understand that the U.S. is exploring the prospect of lifting the arms embargo in Vietnam, which could open the door to American arms sales there. I'm sure that that, you know, for some people that is a very sensitive and difficult issue. Why is this under consideration?

SULLIVAN: I think there's a couple of reasons. I mean, first, there's already been a partial lifting of the embargo a few years back. And the Vietnamese want to see the ban lifted entirely because at this point they think it's just a relic and that they're being punished for no reason. So mainly it's for face, I think.

But for the U.S. this is tricky because the U.S. in the past always linked the lifting of the embargo to the issue of human rights. And on that front, Vietnam hasn't shown enough progress for some. They still routinely jail dissidents - bloggers - who challenge the state's authority, so that's an issue.

But getting back to China, lifting the embargo would definitely send a message to Beijing that the U.S. and Vietnam are developing a close relationship, not just economically but in terms of foreign policy, too. And that's an important message because of what's going on in the South China Sea.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, any sense of how the president's trip is being viewed in Vietnam or any sense of how people are reacting to it so far? I know it's just at the very beginning, but what you hearing?

SULLIVAN: Some people seem interested. Some people seem to be excited about the idea of Obama coming. But he's the third U.S. president to come here since the two countries normalized relations. And a lot of young people here, they want to see more progress on the issue of political freedom. And they want to see more progress on the issue of human rights. And they're hoping Obama's going to say more about that while he's here. And I'm not sure that's going to happen. And then there's also these outstanding legacy issues of the war - the Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance here. And some people here want to see more progress on that, too. We'll have to wait and see what President Obama says.

MARTIN: That's reporter Michael Sullivan in Hanoi. Thank you so much for joining us.

SULLIVAN: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.