EDITED BY KALAHAN DENG
President Obama arrived in the steamy capital ofVietnam ahead of schedule on Sunday night to begin three days of meetings in hopes of luring yet another Southeast Asian country away from China’s tight embrace.
He was greeted on the tarmac by a young woman in a long yellow dress who handed him a bouquet of flowers. Several second-tier Vietnamese officials shook the president’s hand before he climbed into his limousine for a quick trip to his hotel after nearly 24 hours of travel. Quiet clusters of people on the dark streets watched his motorcade pass. Except for the small groups, the streets seemed to have been completely cleared.
Since Air Force One had been scheduled to land after midnight, or about three hours later, the official arrival ceremony with high officials in attendance was postponed until Monday morning.
Maybe then Mr. Obama will see the kind of emotional outpouring that greeted President Bill Clinton in 2000, when he became the first United States president to visit the country since the Vietnam War. But it is possible that relations between the two countries have reached a stage that the arrival of an American head of state no longer seems so unusual.
Mr. Obama will meet with the country’s newly installed prime minister and president on Monday, then get together with the country’s real power — Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party.
Mr. Obama’s visit is an important step in a complex dance that Vietnamhas carried on with China for centuries. Most of Vietnam’s illustrious historical figures made their reputations by battling Chinese invaders. The population here is deeply nationalistic and anti-Chinese sentiment is visceral. The American War, as it is known here, is mostly forgotten, particularly since half of the population is under 30.
Vietnam relies on China for trade, investment and even the water that feeds the vast Mekong Delta, so the leadership knows it can poke the dragon only so much.
Indeed, Vietnam had mostly sought to appease China since a brief and bloody war between the countries in 1979, and had shrugged off a series of provocations as China sought in recent years to assert its dominance over the South China Sea, which extends the length of Vietnam’s 2,000-mile coast.
But in 2014, China placed a giant deep-sea drilling rig to explore for oiland gas right off the Vietnamese coast, and Mr. Trong could not even get his telephone calls to Beijing returned. The confrontation touched off angry protests in Vietnam that led to the deaths of two Chinese and the destruction of Taiwanese and South Korean factories.