US-Vietnam: Weapons for Reform

Momentum is growing in Washington, D.C., to remove the lethal weapons ban on Vietnam, a move that would undoubtedly agitate China.

It is a gambit that would impel Beijing to view the United States in much the same way the US viewed the Soviet Union’s military assistance to Cuba during the Cold War. However, it is not necessarily the reaction of China that is the reason for the ban still in place.

Lifting the weapons ban could be seen as the next logical step in advancing US-Vietnam relations after the signing of a comprehensive partnership last year. Certainly, with the US in the midst of its strategic rebalance to Asia-Pacific, improving and strengthening relations with regional countries appears to be a necessary step.

At the congressional level, support for lifting the ban reaches across the aisle. Reps. Randy Forbes (Republican), Chairman of the House Armed Services’ Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, and Colleen Hanabusa (Democrat), member of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed joint interest in the sale of defense equipment to Vietnam. Ted Osius, the US nominee for ambassador to Vietnam, also lent support to the idea of relaxing the weapons ban during his Senate nomination hearing.

Beyond Capitol Hill, lifting the weapons ban has received support from the DC-based foreign policy think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In a recently published report titled “Recent Trends in the South China Sea and US Policy,” CSIS recommended that the US develop a “roadmap to allow a step-by-step relaxation of the restrictions.”

Lifting the ban would of course require bipartisan support, which, if the attitudes of Representatives Forbes and Hanabusa are shared by the majority of the House and Senate, may indeed happen.

Requirements for conditional sale

However, there are clear causes for concern if the ban should be removed. Doing so free of any conditions is shortsighted and overlooks the potential for abuse. What promise can the Vietnamese government make to the US that it would not use American weapons against its citizens? More importantly, what action would Hanoi take to demonstrate its resolve?

Although Reps. Forbes and Hanabusa said the potential sale of weapons wouldn’t include items that can be used for crowd control or domestic purposes, weapons of any sort can always be turned against the populace. After all, a rifle is simply a tool; it is the police officer or soldier that decides who or what to shoot.

Without action, words mean little, and the Vietnamese government have time and again shown their indifference to demands for human rights reform. In separate publications from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, restrictions on basic human rights are not only ongoing but have also deteriorated.

If President Obama and the US Congress are determined to lift the lethal weapons ban, strict conditions on any sale to Vietnam must be imposed. The US should make it abundantly clear that it does not need to sell weapons to Vietnam but rather chooses to do so. As such, the ongoing sale of weapons to Vietnam is contingent on concrete human rights improvements according to an established timeline agreed to by the US

Additionally, while the US is unlikely to sell its most modern technologies to Vietnam, the US must nevertheless take into consideration the very real possibility of its weapons falling into Chinese hands, inadvertently or otherwise.

No less important than the use of American weapons in Vietnamese hands, President Obama and Congress must also decide whether if they can trust the Vietnamese military to keep said weapons from ending up in the wrong country.

Lifting the ban on lethal weapons is the next big step the US can make in advancing diplomatic relations with Vietnam. It is, however, a step requiring vigorous debate and clear examination of benefits and pitfalls.

If tied to human rights improvements, lifting the weapons ban is a potential first step to greater opportunities for reform. If, however, there are no conditions attached or the US fails to ensure Vietnamese compliance, lifting the ban would have done little but equip Vietnamese security forces with made-in-America weapons to be used against the Vietnamese populace.

Not unlike US-Viet relations, the fate of the weapons ban is complicated. Although there is room for progress, “progress” must not overlook the plight and well-being of Vietnam’s ordinary citizens.

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.