As the U.S. slashes its military budget and faces new and deepening crises across the world, it needs strong partners, particularly in Asia, where regular Chinese incursions threaten the status quo. The U.S. should thus end its ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. Doing so will not only strengthen Vietnam and bring it further into the U.S. camp, but could also improve human rights there if the U.S. properly conditions the arms sales.
In 1984, the U.S. imposed an arms embargo against Vietnam because of its poor human rights record. In 2007, the Bush administration eased it, permitting the export of certain non-lethal defense items to Vietnam. Still, Hanoi’s continued human rights abuses have limited Washington’s willingness to draw closer to it. Among other things, Vietnam limits press, speech and religious freedoms, curtails ethnic minorities’ and workers’ rights, and lacks due process and an independent judiciary.
But a changed security environment requires the U.S. to reconsider its remaining arms ban against Vietnam. The U.S., which is reducing its military spending while being pulled into fresh and intensifying conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, needs strong partners to help it respond to China’s increasingly hostile rise.
China is a growing threat. Its military budget is the second largest in the world and almost surpasses those of the other twenty-four countries in East and South Asia combined. China has used these funds to field an impressive power-projecting arsenal and weapons meant to deny the U.S. access to its surrounding waters and airspace. Confident in its military strength and doubting U.S. resolve, Beijing has been aggressively advancing its claims over contested areas.
Consider its actions this year alone against Vietnam in the South China Sea, where those countries have rival stakes, more than half of world trade passes, and rich fishing grounds and potentially large gas and oil reserves lie. In January 2014, China began requiring foreign vessels to obtain approval to fish in the 90 percent of the 1.35-million-square-mile South China Sea that it claims. From May through mid-July, China deployed a state-owned oil-exploring rig 80 miles inside Vietnam’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone recognized by international law. During that time, China buzzed and rammed Vietnamese vessels trying to intervene, plus it sank another. Last month, amidst U.S. and Filipino requests for all claimants to freeze provocations in the South China Sea, China announced plans to construct lighthouses on islands there to legitimize its purported legal rights to the islets over Vietnam’s. And last week, Vietnam accused China of harassing its fishing boats and beating Vietnamese fishermen near the disputed Paracel Islands.
Hanoi could be a strong balancing force against Beijing. Vietnam has the world’s 13th largest population (nearly 100 million people) and 11th largest active duty military force, plus it is estimated to become the world’s 17th largest economy by 2025. Indeed, its proximity to global supply chains and low-wage workforce make it an attractive manufacturing alternative to China. Vietnam’s military outlays climbed 130 percent from 2003 to 2012—making it Southeast Asia’s second biggest defense spender as a proportion of GDP—which Hanoi is using to modernize its naval and air forces. Its location is strategically valuable: Vietnam shares an almost 800-mile border with China and it abuts the South China Sea. Finally, Vietnam is tough, having kept an outnumbered and outclassed group of vessels near China’s rig during their 75-day summer standoff.
But Chinese aggression does not guarantee that Washington and Hanoi will formally ally against Beijing. First, Vietnam has a strong, pro-China faction. Indeed, Vietnam’s defense minister called the countries’ rig standoff a small disagreement between “brothers.” Second, as Vietnam’s biggest trade partner and an expanding investment source, China has economic leverage over that country. Third, Vietnam, which has no defense treaty with the U.S., has witnessed Washington’s anemic responses to recent aggression across the world, including China snatching in 2012 contested territory from America’s ally the Philippines. Hanoi therefore questions whether Washington will back it against Beijing. Unless Chinese hostility increases, Vietnam will likely seek a middle course between the U.S. and China to procure benefits from each.
Even so, by ending its ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam, the U.S. can more effectively counter Chinese assertiveness by strengthening Vietnam and drawing it closer to the U.S. and its partners. Vietnam will be better positioned to withstand Chinese incursions if the U.S. boosts its maritime law enforcement, surveillance and asymmetric naval capacities. The U.S. can more effectively modernize Vietnam’s military than Russia – Hanoi’s primary arms supplier – can because the U.S. has more advanced technology, can make greater price concessions, and is arguably less likely to cave to Chinese pressure to withhold potent weapons from Vietnam. As Washington arms Hanoi, the countries’ military contacts will necessarily increase. For instance, the U.S. will have to train the Vietnamese to use the equipment and potentially build infrastructure in Vietnam to operationalize it. Moreover, Vietnam’s military will have greater interoperability with those of the U.S. and its regional allies. Building on these dynamics, Vietnam may eventually conduct joint combat exercises with the U.S. or its partners and grant the U.S. additional port visits (currently limited to one per year) and access to its military bases (talks began in at least 2012).
Critics will respond that the U.S. should not sell Vietnam lethal weapons because it abuses human rights. As a preliminary matter, strategic imperatives can force Washington to reluctantly maintain ties to unsavory governments. But here, the U.S. need not choose between its values and interests. Washington can structure its arms transactions with Hanoi to minimize their contribution to human rights abuses and to incentivize Vietnam to treat its citizens better. First, the U.S. should sell Vietnam only weapons that will help it resist China rather than harm its citizens. That limitation should be easy to follow given that Vietnam and China are currently battling at sea. Second, the U.S. should transfer military equipment to Vietnam only after it makes verifiable progress on human rights, such as releasing political prisoners or amending its laws. The U.S. can reinforce this dynamic by including in the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a draft free trade agreement including the U.S., Vietnam, Japan, Australia, and others – provisions requiring its members to pass human rights protections. (Concluding that deal will also enrich Vietnam, which will enable it to buy more arms, and reduce its economic dependence on China.)
U.S. officials from both parties, including Senator John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, have recently signaled their interest in rescinding Washington’s remaining arms ban against Hanoi. With more Chinese confrontations looming as it orders additional oil-exploring rigs and coast guard vessels for use in the South China Sea, Vietnam’s defenses must be bolstered soon. And given that last month Vietnam imprisoned activists for allegedly obstructing traffic, the need for U.S. influence to advance that country’s human rights is clear.
Paul J. Leaf worked on defense issues for a think tank. He is a regular commentator on foreign policy and an attorney at an international law firm.