During a visit to the Vietnamese capital on Monday, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, US Sen. Bob Corker, said the Senate is considering lifting its ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. The statement came amid a series of high-level meetings in the past month between Vietnamese and US officials. The meetings repeatedly touched on Hanoi’s request that the ban be lifted and for expanded ties in areas such as regional security, trade and commerce cooperation, and Vietnam’s entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Washington appeared more willing to reconsider the embargo as part of its ongoing response to the shifting security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.
In 1995, two decades after the end of the Vietnam War, the United States and Vietnam re-established diplomatic relations. Their ties have improved markedly in recent years, and in 2007 the United States modified the defense embargo to allow sales of non-lethal military equipment and services to Vietnam on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless, it repeatedly rejected Hanoi’s request that it lift the ban on the sale or transfer of lethal weapons, citing Vietnam’s poor human rights record.
The decision could be subject to some intense bipartisan debates, particularly considering that Hanoi’s recent moves to block online opponents and dissidents appear to have tainted its pledge to improve human rights. Nonetheless, Stratfor has received some indications that the move by the Obama administration to lift the ban may have found greater bipartisan support.
Despite elevated military-to-military cooperation between Vietnam and the United States in recent years, the leadership in Hanoi often regarded the arms ban as a key barrier to a closer relationship. This not only undermines the perception of the US-Vietnamese comprehensive partnership but also keeps Vietnam from being seen as a more credible regional partner. Meanwhile, China’s aggressiveness regarding maritime boundaries has led Hanoi to seek external support and defense acquisitions.
Theoretically, lifting the ban would enable Vietnam to acquire air defense missiles and maritime patrol aircraft in addition to those from traditional suppliers, such as Russia. Such acquisitions are necessary for Vietnam to modernize its naval and air force capabilities. They will also enable greater military exchanges and joint operations in the maritime sphere.
Until recently, the desire to significantly strengthen ties with the United States was in some ways offset by the Vietnamese leadership’s stronger tendency to avoid directly antagonizing China, which repeatedly rejected involvement by any external powers in the maritime disputes. Within Vietnam’s Communist Party, powerful members of the pro-China faction, which is led by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh, have steered state policy in favor of a cordial relationship with Vietnam’s northern neighbor.
Nonetheless, Beijing’s deployment of a deep-sea oil rig near the Paracel Islands in May has altered Vietnam’s internal balance and its national strategy dramatically. Vietnam’s leadership began viewing its long-term political and economic reliance on China, once the centerpiece of the Communist Party’s ideological coherence and national development, as a growing liability. Hanoi has actively sought a greater role for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in maritime disputes and has explored diplomatic and defense interactions with countries including Russia, Japan and India. In addition, it is looking to diversify from its economic overreliance on China, which currently accounts for 10 percent of Vietnam’s total exports and is a key supplier of Hanoi’s critically needed low-priced raw materials, machinery and equipment for its export economy.
Hanoi’s growing — and long-standing — challenge is increasingly complementary to Washington’s need to demonstrate greater commitment in the region and counterbalance China. Although the timing of the removal of the lethal weapons ban is unclear, the decision-makers in Washington could view the ban as a limit on the U.S.-Vietnamese bilateral relationship, putting Washington at a disadvantage in a country of growing strategic importance.
Washington and Hanoi’s motivation to move from old hostilities into new cooperation by no means stems solely from the threat of China. Vietnam’s strategic position, its role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its large transitional economy are all crucial elements for shaping U.S. strategic interest in the Asia-Pacific region. Meanwhile, Vietnam sees stronger trade relations and entry into the Trans-Pacific Partnership as an opportunity to strengthen its economy and facilitate its structural reform.
Vietnam cannot give up relations with China entirely; doing so would pose serious ideological challenges to Vietnam’s leadership and would hamper its economy. Rather, Vietnam’s cooperation with other powers, particularly the United States, can be seen as an indication of Hanoi’s determination to expand options for partnerships beyond China. Still, Beijing’s assertiveness over maritime boundaries provides a unifying concern among peripheral countries and the United States. As the Vietnamese saying goes: Too far from heaven and too close to China.
Publishing by The Manila Times of this Geopolitical Diary is with the express permission of STRATFOR.