JOURNAL | POINT OF VIEW By: Murrary Hiebert
Nothing during US President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Vietnam in late May garnered as much media attention as his decision to lift the ban on American military sales to its former battlefield foe. Human rights advocates argued that Obama was giving the communist government in Hanoi too much while it continues to imprison bloggers and democracy activists. Security analysts argued the president’s decision was long overdue thanks to the increasing security cooperation between Vietnam and the United States in the face of China’s assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.
Obama said he ordered the lifting of the arms ban to end a “lingering vestige of the Cold War” and help ensure that Vietnam has the ability to defend itself. The president was clearly alluding to China, which over the past two years has been busy building artificial islands, complete with l5 landing strips that can receive military aircraft, near features claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and others. Two years ago, a Chinese state-owned oil company moved a football field-size oil exploration rig into an area that Vietnam claims to be within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Obama’s goal in visiting Vietnam was to celebrate how far the two countries have come in deepening their ties since they normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, two decades after the US military intervention ended in the defeat of America’s non-Communist allies in the south of the country. Obama, who launched a “rebalancing” of Asia policy in 2011, sought during his visit to lay the foundation for stepped-up future cooperation in areas ranging from security to trade and investment, and education to the environment.
The United States imposed a trade embargo on Vietnam and a ban on military sales to the country after the Communist victory in 1975. The trade embargo was lifted in 1994, the year before the two countries normalized relations. The arms ban was maintained and during the past decade the US government added improvements to the human rights environment as a condition for allowing Vietnam to buy weapons from American companies.
US officials say Vietnam’s human rights record has improved during the past decade and Hanoi has allowed more space for political debate and criticism. Nonetheless, the US Embassy in Hanoi estimates that the security apparatus still holds about 100 political detainees, mostly bloggers and democracy activists. When Obama sought to meet with some of the regime’s critics during his visit, several, including one who had tried to run as an independent candidate in the country’s recent National Assembly elections, were blocked from seeing the president. At least some dissidents in Vietnam supported Obama’s decision. Nguyen Quang A, one of those blocked from meeting the president, told The Wall Street Journal that the arms ban should not be linked to human rights. “They are separate issues. The embargo helps to close the gap between the past and the present and marks the end of an era,” the dissident said. “That’s a good thing for everyone.”
In recent years, Hanoi had begun calling on Washington to lift the arms ban, arguing that it was a holdover of the war at a time when the two countries had taken giant steps to reconcile. In fact, only Myanmar, following the long-serving military junta’s recent moves toward democratic reform, vies with Vietnam as the country that has most deeply strengthened its ties with Washington under Obama’s rebalance to Asia.
Last year, the chief of Vietnam’s Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, made history by visiting the White House and the two sides announced that they had agreed to respect each other’s political systems, putting to bed Hanoi’s lingering anxiety that Washington sought to topple the Vietnamese regime. Two years earlier, Vietnam’s president visited Washington and agreed with Obama to launch a comprehensive partnership between the former enemies. In 2015, the two countries’ militaries signed a joint vision statement promoting defense cooperation. And late last year, Vietnam and the United States were two of 12 countries to complete negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Vietnam in recent years has emerged as Southeast Asia’s largest exporter to the United States, beating out trade powerhouses such as neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.
Vietnamese officials see boosting economic ties with the United States as a way to balance their country’s deep reliance on China. The giant neighbor to the north is not only Vietnam’s largest source of imports, but also a major supplier of electricity, many of the inputs the country needs for its garment exports and the fertilizer it requires for its thriving rice production.
In the end, Obama’s decision to lift the arms ban is more symbolic than significant for economic or security reasons. Vietnam is in the midst of a sizeable military modernization effort in response to China’s actions in the South China Sea, but even though it was estimated to be the world’s eighth-largest weapons purchaser between 2011 and 2015, Hanoi is not likely to buy much from the United States. Two years ago, Washington partially lifted the arms ban, allowing Vietnam to buy maritime domain awareness equipment such as radar and boats, but Hanoi still has not purchased any defense items from US firms.
Much of the military equipment Vietnam buys comes from Russia. Vietnamese officials say American technology is too expensive and the approval processes too complicated. In fact, even with the lifting of the arms ban, each weapons purchase would still need to be approved and could be blocked for various reasons, including any frustration in Washington about the human rights situation in Vietnam.
Interestingly, even in the face of China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, the Vietnamese military limits its naval engagements with the United States to three per year, and is reluctant to organize joint exercises with the US Navy, which is anxious to boost cooperation. Some of this caution is due to the fact that many of the Vietnamese military’s top brass came of age during what they call the American War.
Beyond that, Vietnamese officials are very sensitive about not wanting to irritate their Chinese neighbors, with whom they have had considerable experience during the last two millennia of often-troubled history. In 1979, after Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia and ouster of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, China launched an attack across Vietnam’s northern border. In 1988, the Chinese Navy used force to oust Vietnamese troops from a disputed island in the South China Sea.
Vietnam’s complicated past with its giant neighbor prompts Hanoi to engage in a carefully calibrated dance between the world’s two most powerful countries. Obama lifted the ban not to try to court a new regional ally that shares anxiety about Beijing’s goals, but rather to give Vietnam a bit of wiggle room as it figures out how to adjust to China’s economic and military rise.
Murray Hiebert is a senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.