On October 2, Secretary of State John Kerry finally met officially with his Vietnamese counterpart Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh in Washington. In May, Secretary Kerry invited Minh to visit but the invitation was not taken up immediately. Vietnamese officials privately told The Diplomat at the time that Binh’s visit was “too sensitive” because of the oil rig crisis with China.
Under the terms of the Comprehensive Partnership agreed in July 2013, a ministerial-level mechanism was created to oversee all aspects of the bilateral relationship. The meeting between Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Minh was held to review developments over the past year under the Comprehensive Partnership Agreement.
In remarks prior to their meeting Secretary Kerry noted that significant progress had been made on a number of issues including the civilian 123 nuclear program, the Proliferation Security Agreement, and economic and other issues.
Foreign Minister Minh noted, “I come to the United States today to meet and to work with U.S. colleagues to review the bilateral relations between the two countries.”
It therefore came as a surprise when Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the Department of State, announced at the daily press briefing:
The Secretary informed Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Minh that the State Department has taken steps to allow for the future transfer of maritime security-related defense articles to Vietnam. This policy supports Vietnam’s efforts to improve its maritime domain awareness and maritime security capabilities.
Under questioning from the media Psaki noted “our security relationship (with Vietnam) remains under constant review. Clearly there’s more work that needs to be done in areas like human rights… and this is, of course, a partial lifting.”
When asked a series of questions about whether the lifting of the arms embargo was prompted by China’s action in the South China Sea, and specifically China’s placement of an oilrig in disputed waters, Paski replied:
Well, in part, in order to fully integrate Vietnam into maritime security initiatives that we have partnerships on throughout the region. But there are also components of steps in progress on reforms that they made in the country that prompted the action.
State Department officials held a separate briefing for the media to clarify this issue. They spoke on a background basis. These officials were at pains to downplay the China factor in the unexpected U.S. decision to approve the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam for maritime defense. For example, one official stated:
In very broad terms, it’s partly in response to the realization that there is a lack of maritime capacity in the region and it is useful to fill that gap. And certainly, the need for that has become more apparent over the last year or two. But it is not in response to a specific action or crisis at the moment. This is not an anti-China move. This is not something were we would feel we had to alert China to. This is really a move on the continuum of things we’ve been talking about to help countries build maritime capacity.
The same State Department official also noted that immediate sales were not expected and “Vietnam does not have any equipment on order at this moment.”
The United States first imposed an arms embargo on North Vietnam in response to the Gulf of Tonkin incidents in August 1964. This took the form of invoking the Trading with the Enemy Act that was extended to the whole of Vietnam after it was formally reunified.
In 1984 the United States included Vietnam on the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) list of countries that were denied licenses to acquire defense articles and defense services. The ITAR list included countries that were already under a U.S. arms embargo or where it was deemed that armed exports “would not otherwise be in furtherance of world peace and security and the foreign policy of the United States.”
ITAR restrictions remained in place even after the U.S. ended its trade embargo against Vietnam in 1994. In April 2007, the Department of State amended ITAR to permit “on a case-by-case basis licenses, other approvals, exports or imports of non-lethal defense articles and defense services destined for or originating in Vietnam.”
The Bush Administration included Vietnam in the Foreign Military Financing program for the first time. It requested $500,000 for the 2009 Fiscal Year budget.
This change in U.S. policy led Vietnam to inquire about the sale of spare parts for its Vietnam-era captured U.S. Huey helicopters and M113 Armored Personnel Carriers at the first Vietnam-United States Security Dialogue on Political, Security and Defense Issues held in Hanoi in October 2008.
In December 2009, Vice Admiral Jeffrey Wieringa, the head of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, revealed in an interview that although U.S.-Vietnam defense relations were in their infancy eventual arms sales were “certainly possible” when the relationship matured. Admiral Wieringa suggested that Vietnam might be interested in maritime patrol aircraft or a coastal radar system.
Admiral Wieringa’s remarks were made on the eve of the visit to Washington by Vietnam’s Minister of National Defense, General Phung Quang Thanh. When Thanh met with Secretary Robert Gates at the Pentagon he requested that the U.S. lift its arms embargo.
The Obama Administration set human rights conditions on arms sales. In July 2010, on the fifteenth anniversary of diplomatic relations, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalak was asked on a nationally televised program in Vietnam why the U.S. arms embargo was still in effect. Ambassador Michalak replied:
That is one of the areas where human rights questions do have an effect. We would very much like to expand our military to military relationship to include the sale of arms, but until we are more comfortable with the human rights situation in Vietnam, that’s just not going to be possible.
According to annual State Department reports for the years 2007 to 2010, the U.S. licensed the export of $98.5 million of defense articles and $3.7 million of defense services to Vietnam. In response to Vietnam’s submission of letters of request under the Foreign Military Sales program, the State Department approved Foreign Military Financing for Vietnam’s acquisition of helicopter spare parts and ship radios.
In August 2011, Senator Jim Webb revealed that the U.S. Department of Defense and Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense had held “careful but positive” discussions on lifting the restrictions on the sale of military technology to Vietnam. No further details were made available.
Over the next three years Vietnam conducted a concerted lobbying campaign at the highest level to get the United States to end its arms embargo. In June 2012, for example, when Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Hanoi, both Defense Minister Thanh and Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung pressed for the lifting of the embargo. In July 2014, President Truong Tan Sang lobbied former President Bill Clinton for an end to the arms embargo during the latter’s visit to Hanoi.
The partial lifting of the ban to permit the sale of lethal maritime security and surveillance capabilities on a case by case basis raises the question of what Vietnam will ask for. In January 2012, prior to the lifting of the partial ban, Vietnam provided a “wish list” of military weapons it would like to acquire to visiting Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman while they were in Hanoi. No details were made public.
Shortly after the visit by the two senators, there were media references to Vietnam’s interest in acquiring demining technology. More significantly, it was reported that Vietnam was interested in developing an anti-submarine warfare capability and had shown interest in procuring the Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion with advanced sonar detection equipment. Vietnam wanted the P-3 to protect its Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea and to detect Chinese submarines operating in its waters.
In June 2012, Vietnam’s Defense Minister addressed a joint press conference with Secretary Panetta in Hanoi. Thanh provided the first general indication of what Vietnam would like to acquire. He stated:
Once the lethal weapons restrictions are lifted, Vietnam has the demand to buy some [items] from the United States, firstly to repair, to overhaul, the weapons that are left from the war. After that depends on the financial capacity and demands of our military. We will choose to buy… certain kinds of weapons for the process of modernization of our military.
Present U.S. policy prohibits the licensing or sale of a variety of weapons, “non-lethal crowd control defense articles and defense services, and night vision devises to end users with a role in ground security.” The changed U.S. policy is aimed at bolstering Vietnam’s Coast Guard by providing patrol boats, coastal radar and maritime surveillance aircraft. It has yet to be determined what defensive armaments will be permitted for these platforms.
Two conclusions can be drawn from the partial lifting of the U.S. arms embargo. First, the United States policy to counter Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea has moved beyond diplomatic rhetoric and support for international law to a strategy that now embraces arming littoral states to defend themselves in their maritime domain.
This shift in U.S. policy is designed to beef up the maritime defense capabilities of littoral states to deter – if not respond to – Chinese assertiveness without directly dragging the United States into a naval confrontation with China. In the case of Vietnam, U.S. officials have made clear that their priority is to enhance the capabilities of the Vietnam Coast Guard to defend itself. This is because China has chosen to employ its Coast Guard, other civilian maritime enforcement agencies, and fishing fleet to advance its sovereignty claims.
Second, the change in U.S. policy also has the effect of undercutting party conservatives in Vietnam who oppose stepping up defense and security cooperation with the United States.
In the past party conservatives challenged other party members who wanted to step up integration with the United States by asking, “What has the United States done for Vietnam?” Party conservatives advanced a three point agenda of demanding more U.S. funds to clean up Agent Orange hot spots, more U.S. assistance in identifying the remains of Vietnamese soldiers missing-in-action in the Vietnam War, and an end to the arms embargo.
The United States has taken steps to address the first two issues. The partial lifting of the arms embargo addresses the third concern. The ball is now back in Vietnam’s court.
Party conservatives must now decide whether or not they should accept the U.S. offer to provide defensive weapons for maritime security. Party conservatives could argue that the partial lifting of arms sales does not go far enough and that the linkage between progress on human rights and the removal of further restrictions is unacceptable. In this case party conservatives are likely to press for a complete end to all U.S. restrictions on arms sale. Conservative opposition could have the effect of limiting Vietnam’s acquisitions of U.S. arms.
On the other hand, if party conservatives accept the partial lifting of the arms embargo they could test the U.S. by requesting the most advanced weapon systems on any patrol boats and aircraft that they order.