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Beijing Loses Face over Partial Lifting of U.S. Arms Embargo on Vietnam

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh ahead of a working lunch on October 2, 2014 at the State Department in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh ahead of a working lunch on October 2, 2014 at the State Department in Washington, DC. Photo: AFP

Beijing’s formidable display of aggression this year has once again backfired, as its neighbors continue to beef up their military capabilities and forge defensive pacts both within and outside the region. On Thursday, in a largely symbolic move, the U.S. State Department announced “The U.S. has taken steps to allow for the future transfer of maritime security-related defense articles to Vietnam.” The decision by Washington in declaring a partial lifting of a long-time ban on lethal weapon sales to Vietnam comes on the heels of several separate and high-profile visits to Vietnam in mid-August by U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Senator John McCain.

The need for Vietnam to improve maritime security was glaringly evident following its latest dispute with China in May, after Beijing deployed an offshore oil drilling rig in waters within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Beijing’s blatant action alarmed neighboring nations and set off a wave of Vietnamese nationalism, numerous collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese naval vessels, and deadly anti-Chinese riots and looting, before the rig was finally removed July 16. The confrontation also alarmed those in Washington who seek freedom of navigation and minimal conflict in these important trade shipping waters. which Vietnam refers to as the East Sea and China calls the South China Sea.

The State Department declined to name any specific weapons systems under consideration or give a timetable for expected agreement on any sales. Officials revealed only that any sale would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and would only pertain to lethal weapons used for maritime security purposes.

The quick decision of the Obama Administration to partially lift the ban caught some analysts off guard, as a decision was expected by many toward the end of the year. Yet while the timing of the decision is aggressive, it must be seen as largely symbolic, for most of Vietnam’s weapons are based on cheap but reliable Russian systems.  Although Vietnam would be interested in anti-submarine warfare, the first U.S. sales will likely be used, unarmed Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion planes used for surveillance which are being replaced by newer Boeing P-8A aircraft. Future weapons sales could include airborne systems as well as ships.

The partial lifting of the ban, although long overdue, will likely prove to be a major irritant to officials in Beijing. Hanoi plays down the notion of the move inflaming Hanoi’s maritime dispute with China, arguing Vietnam could still buy weapons from other countries, including China’s ally Russia, whether or not Washington lifts the embargo. Likewise, U.S. officials said they did not expect any backlash from China since the focus would be on providing Vietnam with defensive systems.

Yet despite reassurances from both Washington and Hanoi diplomats, Beijing officials are likely to offended by what they see as further interventions on their turf. Beijing claims up to 90 percent of the disputed South China Sea as their own and will surely interpret the move by Washington as another example of the despised U.S. “pivot to Asia.” In the coming days, despite having their hands full with pro-democracy supporters in Hong Kong, we should not be surprised to see some form of face-saving retaliation by Beijing in the South China Sea.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666