A Step Closer to Normal

by Michelle Bovée 

The United States and Vietnam may have officially normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, twenty years after the end of the Vietnam War, but until October 2, 2014, the United States maintained a strict arms embargo against its former antagonist.

In a somewhat surprising move, the US has finally decided to adjust its long-standing policy – though only for maritime security purposes.

Official word from Washington is that “modest” human rights reforms prompted the repeal of this 40-year ban, though human rights groups are not so certain.

Vietnam can now purchase armed ships and possibly even airborne defense systems, but not tanks or automatic weapons .  Dropping the arms embargo, even while maintaining some restrictions, is still quite a step forward for the two nations, especially given their history of hostility: it is perhaps a sign that Washington is finally willing to acknowledge that it has some mutual interests with Hanoi.

Official word from Washington is that “modest” human rights reforms prompted the repeal of this 40-year ban, though human rights groups are not so certain. Human Rights Watch’s Asia advocate, for example, stated that this action was taken “too soon,” and that Vietnam had not yet earned the repeal of the embargo. He expressed concern that dropping the arms embargo would mean a loss of significant leverage over Vietnam’s government, thus reducing the US’s ability to press for further reforms.

Other critics have suggested that the US decided to drop the ban as a way to prevent China from increasing its foothold in the South China Sea, where China and its neighbors (including Vietnam) have been playing brinkmanship for years, though Washington has firmly denied that the shift in policy was an anti-China move.  Helping Vietnam defend itself against increasing expansionism from China, which currently claims approximately 90 percent of the South China Sea, was undeniably a key motive, but this action is unlikely to alter the tenuous regional balance.

Vietnam is hardly desperate for military assistance.  The socialist republic has been purchasing weapons from Russia for years, India recently offered $100M in credit for defense-related purchases, and Japan and Vietnam have signed an agreement to expand maritime security relations in the wake of increasing aggression from China.

Furthermore, Vietnam has long held what has been dubbed the “three no’s” defense policy:  no military alliances, no military bases on Vietnamese soil, and no relying solely on one country to combat others.  These “no’s” allow wiggle room for bilateral defense ties, including with the US, but take a firm stance against leaning too heavily against any one ally for military purposes.

Washington has firmly denied that the shift in policy was an anti-China move.

Thus, it would be quite surprising if the Vietnamese government were to take advantage of the newly-lowered arms embargo to stock up on enough weaponry to turn the tables on China, particularly given the third “no.”

So what can be expected from this foreign policy shift, if it isn’t significant enough to change the balance in Asia or result in a major flow of capital and arms?  It does signify a desire to truly normalize relations, for one.  As Vietnam’s Foreign Minister pointed out, diplomatic ties between the two nations were formalized decades ago, but relations could never really be normal as long as the ban was in place.

As Vietnam and the US move forward with this new arrangement it is likely that the two will discover new areas for cooperation and partnership.  Additionally, this decision does reinforce the US’ quiet role in the South China Sea, though Washington has thus far refused to take sides.

Approximately 40 percent of the world’s sea trade passes through the Sea, making it a very strategic region, both economically and politically.  Dropping the embargo could be a sign that the US has acknowledged that its own vested interests in the region may not be so far from Vietnam’s, despite the tense history between the two.

Vietnam remains a socialist republic with some serious human rights issues to work out, but may be the lesser of two evils in the region: ceding control of the South China Sea would have severe ramifications for the United States and the world, given the Sea’s strategic location and the need for regional stability.

Michelle Bovée is a staff writer for Charged Affairs.