Despite concerns in Washington over past and recent human rights violations in Vietnam, President Obama chose to fully lift the arms embargo on lethal military equipment in his first (and last) visit to Vietnam on May 23. Much speculation surrounded his decision prior to his visit, with Washington deeply divided over the issue despite Obama’s strategic “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region, driven in part by an aggressive China.
While the Pentagon and various defense contractor lobbyists were clearly in favor of fully lifting the ban, others in the White House and at the State Department wanted Vietnam to improve its poor record on human rights before a full lifting of the embargo. Earlier this month, Daniel Russel, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, visited Hanoi telling reporters, “One of the important factors that would make a lift of the ban possible would be to continue forward momentum in meeting universal human rights standards and progress in important legal reform.”
Since the normalization of relations in 1995, Hanoi has been anxious to leave behind any ill will toward its former enemy in anticipation of accessing advanced weaponry from the United States. Washington finally eased the embargo on lethal weapon sales toward the end of 2014, which allowed for the sale of some defensive maritime equipment to Vietnam. However, due to a lack of funding, Hanoi did not purchase any American equipment since the partial lifting of the arms embargo, according to Carl Thayer, a defense analyst in Canberra, Australia.
Prior to Obama’s arrival this week, the Vietnamese foreign ministry indicated Vietnam would “welcome the United States’ acceleration to fully lift the lethal arms sale ban on Vietnam,” according to questions posed by Reuters, adding it would be “consistent with the development trend of the comprehensive partnership” and “demonstrating trust between the two countries.” Vietnam relies significantly on Russian-sourced military equipment, including Kilo-class submarines and corvettes.
With a belligerent neighbor to the north which encroaches in its claimed exclusive economic zone (EEZ), Vietnam has quickly transformed itself into the eighth largest purchaser of arms in the world, with its arms imports up 699% over the past five years. Since Beijing seeks to establish its predominance in the South China Sea (East Sea) by creating and militarizing artificial islands and sending an offshore oil rig in May 2014 to Vietnam’s waters, Hanoi is looking to the U.S. to help the country improve its naval defense forces through the sale of P-3 surveillance planes, helicopters and missiles.
Vietnam is currently drawing some criticism for its treatment of protesters, who have gathered on three consecutive Sundays in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to air their grievances over the largest environmental disaster in decades. Demonstrators are calling for accountability for the disaster which led to the deaths of 100 tons of fish along the central coast. Many blame Formosa, a Taiwanese company which operates a $10.6 billion coastal steel plant in Ha Tinh province and is owned by a unit of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics.
Newly-elected Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has promised a thorough investigation, vowing “We will not shield anyone found causing the pollution,” yet it was reported earlier this month in a state-run newspaper that the results had been finalized. While the new leadership were likely waiting until after Obama’s visit (and the National Assembly elections the day before), a plausible explanation will need to be released soon. If Formosa is found guilty, protesters could rally again and the chaos that erupted in May 2014 (at the same steel plant) could unfold.
While some Vietnamese have criticized Obama’s decision to fully lift the arms embargo, he did make it clear at a joint press conference in Hanoi that “sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those related to human rights.” And he did meet with some civil rights activists during his trip, although some were turned away or held under house arrest, which he mentioned to the press while in Vietnam.
Obama may have wanted to extend his goodwill toward the Vietnamese while on his farewell tour with a breakthrough headline, but the real answer to how the future sales of lethal arms to Vietnam pan out will be determined by the results of the U.S. election and how the new Vietnamese leadership addresses human rights violations.