On a recent visit to Vietnam, US President Barack Obama announced that the US would lift the embargo on lethal arms sales to the Southeast Asian nation. The announcement follows the US’s attempts to forge closer ties to the region and to ground support against China against the backdrop of territorial claims and tension.
The US imposed the arms ban in 1984 as an indicator of tensions amidst the Cold War-era. At that point, Vietnam was heavily reliant on its ally, Russia, to supply its arms. In 2014, the embargo was partially lifted. Relations between the Washington and Hanoi have been steadily improving with the advent of the South China Sea dispute. The then-Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung noted in a speech in 2013, “We attach special importance to the roles played by a vigourously rising China and by the United States – a Pacific power”. In 2013, Washington and Hanoi also signed a deal to transfer nuclear fuel and technology from the US to Vietnam. Moreover, it is prudent to note that in 2014, the same year where the arms embargo was partially lifted, Sino-Vietnamese tensions were inflamed as a result of a dispute over an oil rig in the South China Sea, which saw Chinese vessels attacks Vietnamese fishing boats close to the disputed Paracel Islands. Thus the relations between the two have grown ever closer.
Whilst the lifting of the embargo is significant in improving the relations between the two nations, it also gives rise to the modernisation of Vietnamese weaponry. This symbolic gesture is set against the background of the South China Sea dispute, which involves Vietnam’s claims against China over the Paracel Islands. Giving Vietnam greater access to sophisticated US military weapons attaches great concern about their capabilities in the dispute. ‘This change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment that it needs to defend itself,’ Obama said.
The US has strongly indicated to the contrary, that its moves to lift the embargo are not related in any way to China or the dispute. ‘The decision to lift the ban was not based on China,” said Obama in the official announcement. However, experts believe that to be the case. Tom Pepinsky, a southeast Asian expert at Cornell University, said, “Although the Obama Administration denies that continued tensions in the South China Sea are at the heart of its decision…this decision signals US plans to contain China’s regional ambitions with Vietnam as a partner”. Formally, the US has not taken a specific position for or against Chinese territorial claims, instead opting to support freedom of navigation more broadly. Interestingly, Beijing offered a muted statement of support of Vietnam’s normalisation of relations with the US. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, however, cautioned that Beijing hoped the renewed relationship would be “conducive to this region’s stability and development”. There is no doubt that Beijing is closely watching the development, possibly for its own interests to lift embargoes placed on China by the US and the EU in 1989.
Vietnamese military spending has increased exponentially in light of recent threats. Up until now, its arsenal has largely consisted of Russian-built equipment from the Cold War era. With spending increasing at 130% since 2005, this raises the concern about the militarisation of the South China Sea dispute and the even greater volatility of the region.
What the lifting of this arms embargo also raises are concerns with Vietnam’s human rights record. Vietnam, despite moderate progress, is still sketchy at best. According to Human Rights Watch, the ruling Communist Party still plays a large role in repressing basic rights of speech, freedom of association and religion. More than 100 political activists are still jailed and the criminal justice system is as corrupt as ever. Whilst Obama has attempted to leverage better human rights treatment in Vietnam with the lifting of the arms ban, there have been no substantive attempts to address the human rights record of Hanoi.
Enabling greater access to weapons only serves to heighten tension in the fragile region. What is clear is that human rights interests are dissipating in light of security concerns and the actions of the US in only partially addressing Vietnam’s poor human rights record legitimises the importance of security over human rights.