News analysis

Lifting of arms embargo: Value of US move is in its message of partnership

Arms sales unlikely in near future but lifting of embargo signals forging of new relationship

The lifting of a decades-old ban on weapon sales to Vietnam was generally welcomed in Washington as an important move to normalise ties with a key ally, even if the demands of human rights groups were unheeded.

Analysts told The Straits Times that the value in ending the embargo would primarily be in the message it sends about the relationship between the two former enemies, rather than any actual arms sales in the near future.

Mr Richard Fontaine, president of the Centre for a New American Security, pointed out, for instance, that an earlier partial lifting of the embargo did not result in a sudden spike in sales.

 

"The lifting of the arms embargo is a major step, not so much because of the immediate practical effects but because of the signalling that the US-Vietnam relationship is decidedly moving from enemies through normalisation and now to partnership," he said.

Mr Fontaine added that the embargo move was not likely to meet much political opposition in the US as concerns about China's actions in the South China Sea currently outweigh any lingering distrust or ill-will from the Vietnam War.

 

"There will be pockets of opposition here and there but, by and large, it will be greeted favourably. The legacy issues associated with the Vietnam War are not gone, but they have certainly retreated in the political consciousness to some degree and what a lot of folks in Congress are looking at is China's rising assertiveness and the possibility of enlisting new partners," he said.

Vietnamese people taking pictures as Mr Obama's motorcade drove past in Hanoi yesterday. The US leader's three-day trip to Vietnam is part of his administration's strategic "rebalance" to Asia. Mr Obama and Ms Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, chairman of the Vie
Mr Obama and Ms Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, chairman of the Vietnamese National Assembly, feeding fish in a pond at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi yesterday. The US-Vietnam relationship has warmed across the board in recent years. Vietnam is now the largest Asean trade partner of the US and has also signed up to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Thus far, the strongest objections to the lifting of the ban are from human rights activists.

Ahead of the anticipated announcement, human rights groups had hoped that the move would be made contingent on Vietnam improving on its human rights record. Some were also worried that the Vietnamese authorities might use US arms for domestic repression.

On the second note, analysts agree that the Obama administration will make it clear to the Vietnamese authorities and US weapon manufacturers that sales should be related to maritime domain awareness and not items like tear gas.

As to the demand for the US to use arms embargo for leverage, Mr Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said such a move was never going to be a quid pro quo.

Vietnamese people taking pictures as Mr Obama's motorcade drove past in Hanoi yesterday. The US leader's three-day trip to Vietnam is part of his administration's strategic "rebalance" to Asia. Mr Obama and Ms Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, chairman of the Vie
Vietnamese people taking pictures as Mr Obama’s motorcade drove past in Hanoi yesterday. The US leader’s three-day trip to Vietnam is part of his administration’s strategic “rebalance” to Asia. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

"This was inevitable. It was going to happen sooner or later but Beijing pushed up the timeline by several years probably by scaring Hanoi and everybody else," he said, adding that even on the human rights score, the Obama administration has reason to lift the ban.

"Vietnam's human rights situation, while not perfect by any stretch, is as good or better than other countries that don't face these kinds of restrictions," he added.

Mr Joshua Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations said the strategic importance of Vietnam meant that the security relationship sits rightly at the top of the agenda.

He wrote on the think-tank's website: "Vietnam should be an exception to a policy of prioritising democracy in South-east Asia, although the White House can continue pushing for human rights and political freedoms in Vietnam even while ending the arms embargo. Vietnam's importance to the United States' security in Asia, and to the security of US partners, should trump all other issues."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline 'Value of US move is in its message of partnership'. Print Edition | Subscribe