The United States announced an end to its embargo on sales of lethal arms to Vietnam on Monday, an historic step that draws a line under the two countries’ old enmity and underscores their shared concerns about Beijing’s growing military clout.
The move came during President Barack Obama‘s first visit to Hanoi, which his welcoming hosts described as the arrival of a warm spring and a new chapter in relations between two countries that were at war four decades ago.
Obama, the third U.S. president to visit Vietnam since diplomatic relations were restored in 1995, has made a strategic ‘rebalance’ towards Asia a centrepiece of his foreign policy.
Vietnam, a neighbour of China, is a key part of that strategy amid worries about Beijing’s assertiveness and sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
The decision to lift the arms trade ban, which followed intense debate within the Obama administration, suggested that such concerns outweighed arguments that Vietnam had not done enough to improve its human rights record and that Washington would lose leverage for reforms. Obama told a joint news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang that disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully and not by whoever “throws their weight around”. But he insisted the arms embargo move was not linked to China.
“The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations. It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalisation with Vietnam,” he said. He later added that his visit to a former foe showed “hearts can change and peace is possible”.
The sale of arms, Obama said, would depend on Vietnam’s human rights commitments, which would be made on a case-by-case basis.
Human Rights Watch reacted with dismay to Washington’s decision to toss away a critical lever it might have had to spur political reform in the communist party-ruled state.
Phil Robertson, the watchdog’s Asia director, said in a statement that even as Obama was lifting the arms embargo Vietnamese authorities were arresting a journalist, human rights activists and bloggers on the street and in their houses.
“In one fell swoop, President Obama has jettisoned what remained of U.S. leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam – and basically gotten nothing for it,” he said. Obama told the news conference with President Quang that Washington would continue to speak out for human rights, including citizens’ right to organise through civil society.
Quang, who actually announced the U.S. embargo lift before Obama could do so, was until recently minister of public security, which activists say harasses and arrests dissidents.
Dissent was once the domain of just a few in Vietnam, but while the party has allowed more open criticism in recent years, it is quick to slap down challenges to its monopoly on power.
Though the communist parties that run China and Vietnam officially have brotherly ties, China’s brinkmanship over the South China Sea – where it has been turning remote outcrops into islands with runways and harbours – has forced Vietnam to recalibrate its defence strategy.
Security analysts and regional military attaches expect Vietnam‘s initial wish list of equipment to cover the latest in surveillance radar, intelligence and communications technology, allowing them better coverage of the South China Sea as well as improved integration of its growing forces.
Hanoi’s military strategists are also expected to seek drones and possibly P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft from the United States.