Embargo a Cold War legacy that had to go, says China

US President Barack Obama (left) and Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong talk in Hanoi, Vietnam, on May 23.
US President Barack Obama (left) and Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong talk in Hanoi, Vietnam, on May 23. PHOTO: EPA

China has issued a mild response to the announcement that the United States is lifting a weapons sales embargo on Vietnam, leading analysts to say Beijing's assessment is that the US move will have only a limited impact.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said at a regular news briefing yesterday that China, being Vietnam's neighbour, is happy to see it "develop normal, friendly cooperative relations with all countries, including the US".

Pressed further on why Washington decided to end the decades- long embargo at Hanoi's request, Ms Hua said the question should be posed to Vietnam instead.

"My view is that the arms embargo itself is a legacy from the Cold War and should not exist. I hope the resolution of issues such as the arms embargo can help with the region's peace, stability and development," she added.

Peking University analyst Jia Qingguo said Chinese leaders will see the US move as a bid to use Vietnam to counter China, especially in the South China Sea. Beijing and Hanoi are among six claimants to the resource-rich waters.

"The lifting of the arms embargo has been expected as the US and Vietnam have improved their relationship. Also, Vietnam is eager to diversify its supply of weapons and the US no longer views Vietnam as a threat," he told The Straits Times.

"But China is also a significant factor. The US' aim is to boost Vietnam's defence against China," Professor Jia added.

He believes China is not that worried - for now - as it is confident that its close political and economic ties with Vietnam will prevent its communist neighbour from tilting too much towards the US.

"There is a high degree of economic interdependence between China and Vietnam, and both are led by communist parties," said Prof Jia.

Sino-Asean issues expert Xu Liping said it will take time for Vietnam, whose military hardware is mostly Russian-made, to adopt US weapons.

He added that Vietnam's human rights record - the condition spelt out by US President Barack Obama for future arms sales - could determine the quantity and quality of weapons sold, and possibly minimise the impact on China.

Also, Washington will first assess Hanoi's willingness to support the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific, such as whether it will grant American military vessels the use of a new seaport at Cam Ranh Bay, he told The Straits Times.

"These uncertainties could mean that the lifting of the arms embargo has more political significance than actual impact on China," said Dr Xu, who is from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Chinese media, too, believes the impact on China is limited.

The Global Times tabloid, in an editorial published on Sunday night, said Vietnam will not become another US ally like the Philippines because China, although a rival in the South China Sea dispute, "is also considered by Hanoi's mainstream elites as a political pillar for Vietnam's stability".

"Vietnam will attach equal importance to its ties with both Beijing and Washington. It hopes to maximise its own interests, but Hanoi is also well aware that it has to be very scrupulous," it added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2016, with the headline 'Embargo a Cold War legacy that had to go, says China'. Print Edition | Subscribe