Obama Lifts Arms Embargo Against Vietnam

Barack Obama is in Vietnam, the third presidential visit by an American leader since the end of the Vietnam War. Since the Reagan years, Vietnam has been under an American arms embargo and has purchased most of its defense equipment from the Soviets/Russians. With China making aggressive territorial moves in the South China Sea, the Obama administration has decided to life the blanket arms embargo and link future sales to improvements in human rights. The decision is more symbolic than practical, but it is a step toward a balance in southeast Asian politics.

“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 normalization with Vietnam,”Mr Obama told a joint news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang . He later added his visit to a former foe showed “hearts can change and peace is possible.”

Since one ought never to believe anything until it has been officially denied, one can now safely say that the decision to lift the embargo was based on China as well as other considerations. Vietnam is a useful part of any anti-Chinese alliance in southeast Asia. Despite the fights with the French and the Americans, the Vietnamese fought the Chinese in 1979 and 30,000 died. They claim to have made up, pretending to be “close as lips as teeth.”

Two years ago, Time reported, “However, one irritant in the relationship continues to fester — Beijing’s ambitious claim over a lion’s share of the South China Sea. With an estimated 24.7 trillion cu. ft. of proven natural gas and 4.4 billion barrels of oil waiting to be tapped, Vietnam’s economic future is dependent on having access to its share of those waters.” China is claiming about 80% of the sea, and Vietnam has a very long coastline. A clash is inevitable. Whether shots are fired is another matter.

China depends on many of its neighbors for the supplies it imports to produce the goods that Americans buy, creating China’s trade surplus. If enough of those neighbors (and Vietnam is a significant power in that regard) disrupt trade over the territorial claims, that could bring China to a more sensible policy. If economic pressure doesn’t work, having weapons from the US can strengthen Vietnam’s hand.

The Vietnamese, however, aren’t likely to buy much in the way of offensive weapons. First of all, American high-tech weaponry is simply too expensive to be value for money. Secondly, Vietnam really just needs to be able to keep an eye on local developments, and coastal surveillance systems make sense. They are not specifically offensive in nature.

The human rights community is in a tizzy over this. Phil Robertson, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, issued in a statement claiming 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. leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam — and basically gotten nothing for it,” he said.

One can say this for the human rights lobby, they are persistent in sticking to a failed policy. Whether it is the embargo on Cuba that has failed for over five decades, or the embargo on Vietnamese purchase of US weapons that has failed for just three, it makes no difference to the dissident or reporter. The governments of Havana and Hanoi will use force to silence opposition at the drop of a hat. US policy has failed to change that. The correct move is to change policy in order to change the result. Human Rights Watch and others are confusing objectives with strategy. Mr. Robertson can’t justify a continued embargo on human rights grounds because the embargo didn’t improve human rights in Vietnam a bit.

Meanwhile, future sales will “depend on Vietnam’s human rights commitments, and would be made on a case-by-case basis,” according to Mr. Obama. That might actually result in more, rather than less, leverage. Time will tell.