Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh can return to Hanoi content, if not delighted. His meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C., concluded late last week with the announcement that the United States would ease its arms embargo on Vietnam.
Specifically, the State Department referred to the sale of maritime defense equipment to Vietnam to shore up the country’s maritime capabilities, which has thus far been required to defend its interests in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea against a better-equipped Chinese navy and coast guard. The sale or transfer of such equipment could arrive in the form of US Coast Guard cutters similar to those provided to the Philippines and would undoubtedly be readily accepted by Hanoi.
Although the partial lifting of the ban remains a promise for the moment, a reversal appears extremely unlikely. In announcing the US’s intentions to ease its arms embargo, the State Department made clear that any sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam would be considered on a strict case-by-case basis.
Still, this cautious approach was not well-received by human rights advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, who have argued that Hanoi’s record on human rights remains deplorable. Even a partial lifting of the ban could weaken the US’s position in negotiating for improved human rights in Vietnam.
Such an argument is not without merit. After all, Vietnam was hardly desperate for American weaponry, usually turning to Russia for arms, nor was the US hard-pressed to secure Vietnam as a consumer of American military goods and services. As such, the US could continue to push the question of human rights in Hanoi, and Vietnam could continue to ignore serious demands for reform for the most part.
However, recent tensions in Southeast Asia may have contributed to Washington’s change of heart, in particular this year’s oil rig dispute between China and Vietnam. Vietnam, already concerned by China’s increasing assertiveness in the region, responded to the presence of a Chinese oil rig in Vietnamese waters with immediate condemnation.
Although the dispute has been resolved with the removal of the oil rig in July, perhaps sensing an opportunity to exploit the rift between Vietnam and China, and accelerate its planned rebalance to Asia-Pacific, Washington undoubtedly judged this moment to be as good a time as any other to compromise and deal.
A deal, of course, requires something in return. Specifics regarding the lifting of the ban remain vague, and given that President Obama has yet to sign off on it, amendments remain possible. Still, it is worth considering what can be gained from Washington’s gesture.
No doubt any proposal for serious human rights reform would have been rebuffed by Vietnam, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Washington could advocate for other practical reforms in return for easing the arms embargo.
Where the human rights front in Vietnam has largely stalled, the US has found some economic partnership success in the country. From the US–Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement signed in 2000, to assisting Vietnam’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2007, to a potential membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership regional free trade agreement, the US has proved an invaluable economic partner.
Rather than pursue wholesale change that is unlikely to occur, the US should instead consider a path of least resistance, beginning with enhanced political and economic cooperation.
Despite the oil rig dispute, Vietnam is far too close with China, politically and economically, to be lured away over the promise of potential sale of US armaments. The US might not replace China in terms of influence, at least in the near future, but it can instead blunt Hanoi’s unhealthy dependence on its neighbor.
The US might also consider broadening its existing comprehensive partnership with Vietnam to advance this deepening of political and economic ties.
Change, of course, will not come at once. Moreover, Vietnam’s leaders in Hanoi will unlikely pursue any course of action that will reduce their power and influence. Radical change in the form of democratization and human rights reform cannot be achieved by the US alone or at all; this alone remains the responsibility of the Vietnamese people.
Nevertheless, the challenge for US policy and lawmakers is to balance between the well-being of ordinary Vietnamese living under the Communist regime in Hanoi, and advancing American interests in Asia-Pacific. To ease the arms embargo is to gamble on Hanoi’s willingness to play the same game as Washington.
Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law. Duvien Tran is a special research associate at VDK Law Office in Ottawa, focusing on foreign policy and South China Sea security issues.