Lift of the embargo and the impact on Vietnam’s weaponry
After decades of ban, the U.S President Obama lifted the embargo on sales of weapons during his visit to Vietnam in May 2016. The decade-long embargo was on sales of weapons to Vietnam and was already partially lifted in 2014. Today, the U.S decided to fully lift this embargo.
The lift of the embargo is unlikely to affect immediately the acquirement of weapons by Vietnam, mostly because the government would not rush to acquire only American weapons but might use the lift as way to diversify its sources. Indeed, even though the embargo is lifted, the Vietnam might not be ready yet to use weapons as sophisticated and expensive as the American’s ones. In the past decade, the Vietnam defence’s spending has doubled but it is not proven that Vietnam will rush into the American technology. The greatest potential for US sales probably lies in areas like military surveillance systems and coastal defence. Vietnam would welcome technology that helps it track Chinese naval forces. The partial lifting of the embargo two years ago was with the specific aim of improving U.S’ sales in this area. Hence, Vietnam, currently relying mostly on Russian’s defence equipment, is likely to diversify its equipment’s sources but without focusing on the U.S.
The context of South China Sea’s tensions and the U.S policy towards China’s influence
This decision occurs in a time of tension in the South China Sea where the regional States have disputes of territorial claims over several island of the Sea for economic and politic purposes. China is one of the biggest claimers (80% of the claims) and numerous incidents occured in the past few years, including some between Vietnam and the Chinese Republic. For example in 2014, a dispute over a oil rig near the Paracel islands led to clashes between Chinese and Vietnamese vessels along with anti-China riots in Vietnam.
Within these disputes and this tension, the U.S defends the freedom of navigation in this area and has tried to bolster its relations with the other countries involved in the dispute, such as Vietnam or the Philippines. Even though the President Obama affirmed that this decision is not related to the American policy within the region, this lift of the embargo would allow the U.S to strengthen the Vietnamese army, which is currently weaker than China. The Chinese Republic expressed concerns about this lift as the China’s privately-owned portal Sina News said that the lifting of the arms embargo “is a cause for concern” because it may have an impact on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Moreover, the lift of the sanction is also a mean for the U.S to bolster and strengthen its relation with Vietnam, both economically and politically. Indeed, Vietnam is also a key partner for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP has currently 12 members including Vietnam but excluding China and aims at facilitating global trade, especially for Made-in America exports. This US-led trade deal is seen as a counter to China’s growing influence, a policy where Vietnam plays an important role for the U.S.
The condition for selling: respect of the human rights
During his announcement of the lift, President Obama assured that the arms ban would be lifted only if human rights in Vietnam improved. He was pushed by Activist groups who called for him to require a greater respect of human rights in Vietnam. Indeed, as Human Right Watch describes: “Basic rights, including freedom of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion, are restricted. Rights activists and bloggers face harassment, intimidation, physical assault, and imprisonment.” The juridical system based arrests on the Article 258 (abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and/or citizens) of the 1999 Penal Code. Vietnam has about 100 political prisoners and seven activists were sentenced in March for spreading anti-state propaganda. And during May 2016, a BBC reporting team has seen its accreditation revoked and was not allowed to cover Obama’s visit.
This condition of respecting human rights before any selling could make the access to weapons more difficult. Indeed, the U.S President assured that any military contracts would still be subject to provisos on human rights. This condition might be difficult to respect for the Vietnamese government as explained above. Given the Vietnamese government’s poor human rights record, it might hold up possible arms sales in Congress.
Hence, the lift of the embargo on sales of weapons to Vietnam might not bring immediate changes neither for the Vietnamese doctrine warfare nor for its equipment. Russia is likely to remain the first partner of Vietnam on the defence area even though the lift could allow Vietnam to diversify the sources of its weapons. Moreover, this decision of lifting the embargo is to analyse within the regional context of tensions and the U.S policy of countering China’s growing influence.