U.S. President Barack Obama continues his country’s progress toward full normalization of relations with Vietnam. Last month, he made his first visit to Vietnam — the third by a sitting U.S. president since the restoration of relations in 1995 — and announced the lifting of the ban on lethal arms sales to that country. That decision was welcomed in Hanoi, noted with disdain in Beijing and jeered by some in Washington. It was, however, the right move. Nevertheless, the United States’ and Vietnam’s other diplomatic partners must remain attentive to its human rights practices and ensure that progress continues there as well.
The trajectory of U.S.-Vietnam relations has been nothing short of remarkable since North Vietnam forcibly reunited the country in 1975. Despite having fought a bitter war that left deep physical, psychological and social scars on both nations, the two countries had normalized ties by 1995.
Central to this relationship has been the perceived convergence of interests between Hanoi and Washington regarding views of China, which both see as an aggressive country committed to upending the East Asian status quo and rewriting the rules of the regional order. China and Vietnam both claim territory in the South China Sea, a dispute that exploded into open conflict in 1988 over Johnson Reef, which resulted in the deaths of more than 70 Vietnamese soldiers and sailors and the taking of prisoners who were held by China for nearly three years. In 2014, China sent an oil rig to drill near Vietnam’s coast, which triggered another confrontation between the two countries at sea. That incident set off anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam as well.
In this atmosphere, lifting the U.S. arms embargo was seen as means of leveling the playing field and allowing Vietnam to acquire the equipment that it needs to defend its national interests. While saying that disputes should be resolved peacefully and not on the basis of the bigger party or who can throw their weight around, Obama insisted that his decision to lift the ban “was not based on China or any other considerations.” Most importantly, it was a way “to complete … a lengthy process of moving toward normalization with Vietnam.”
Of course, few were persuaded by Obama’s disavowal. In Beijing, official commentary in Xinhua newspaper welcomed the improvement of ties between the former foes, while noting, as it invariably does, that rapprochement must not come at China’s expense. At the same time, a Chinese government spokesperson added that Washington should lift all arms embargoes — calling them “a Cold War legacy,” official parlance for outdated thinking — a dig at continuing sanctions against the sales of U.S. weapons to China.
In Washington and among human rights organizations, complaints were sharper. Critics argued that lifting the embargo meant a loss of leverage to push for more reforms in this area. Human rights has been a minefield in U.S.-Vietnam relations since normalization talks began, and while there has been “modest progress” it has been fitful. Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang said his country had achieved “remarkable progress” on human rights, but more than 100 political prisoners remain behind bars and detentions have reportedly increased this year. After three dissidents were forcibly prevented from attending a meeting Obama held with civil society groups, the U.S. president noted that there are still “areas of significant concern in terms of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, accountability with respect to government.”
The Asia director of Human Rights Watch suggested that Obama has jettisoned what remained of U.S. leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam — and basically gotten nothing for it.” That is not true. While the embargo has been lifted, approvals of weapons sales will be made on a case by case basis. Leverage remains. The U.S. has already provided more than $45 million to strengthen Vietnam’s maritime security capabilities, and the country is unlikely to have an excessively lengthy wish list for future purchases. With a budget to purchase defense equipment of just $1.6 billion, the decision is likely to prove mostly symbolic.
Just as important to Vietnamese security is burgeoning defense relations between Japan and Vietnam. The two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement in 2011 and Tokyo provided Vietnam with six secondhand patrol ships last year. During a visit by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to Hanoi earlier in May, Tokyo agreed to consider Vietnam’s request for more new ships.
Overshadowed by the defense talk are expanding economic ties between the U.S. and Vietnam. Bilateral trade between the two countries reached $45 billion, a ten-fold increase over two decades. Today, Vietnam is Southeast Asia’s biggest exporter to the U.S. During Obama’s visit, Vietnam agreed to purchase 100 jets from Boeing, a deal estimated to be worth more than $11 billion. That relationship will expand still further when (or if ) the U.S. approves the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Not only will that agreement strengthen ties between the U.S. and Vietnam, but it will for Vietnam (like Japan) necessitate internal reform that helps rationalize the domestic economy. A strong and vibrant economy will prove every bit as important as defense equipment as Vietnam contemplates its security needs.