In a historic move, the United States may consider lifting an arms embargo on Vietnam in line with U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to the country next month, The Diplomat understands from U.S. and Vietnamese sources.
U.S.-Vietnam relations have taken off under the Obama administration, with ties between the two former adversaries elevated to a comprehensive partnership in July 2013 (See: “What’s Next for U.S.-Vietnam Relations?”). But though the defense side has witnessed some notable developments, including easing a lethal arms embargo in October 2014 and the signing of a new framework for defense ties in 2015, a full lifting of the embargo has thus far proven elusive despite repeated requests by Vietnam (See: “US, Vietnam Deepen Defense Ties”).
As Obama prepares to visit Vietnam as part of a broader trip to Asia next month, the lifting of the embargo is “under discussion” by both sides, a Vietnamese source told The Diplomat.
Publicly, U.S. defense officials have remained mum about the move, in part because, like the October 2014 easing, a full lifting of the embargo requires a State Department policy decision following interagency discussions and consultations with Congress. That decision would be based on several factors, including improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record.
“We have made it clear that progress on human rights is important for the United States to consider a full lift of the ban on the transfer of lethal defense articles,” David McKeeby, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, told The Diplomat.
As of now, both sides are still finalizing deliverables for the visit, which was first publicly announced following a meeting between Obama and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung on the sidelines of the U.S.-ASEAN summit at Sunnylands (See: “Why the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit Matters”). Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Hanoi ahead of Obama’s visit, where he met with Vietnamese officials including Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.
In an April 21 speech at a Vietnamese university during his trip, Blinken noted “some progress” in the country’s human rights record, including ratifying the Convention Against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of Person Disabilities, agreeing to allow independent trade unions for the first time in modern history, and efforts to consult with a range of local religious and civil society stakeholders during the drafting of a new religion law.
But he also urged the Vietnamese government to release all prisoners, cease harassment, arrests, and prosecutions of its citizens, and impartially investigate allegations of police abuse.
“No one should be imprisoned for peacefully expressing political views,” Blinken said.
On Monday, both sides held this year’s iteration of the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. At a State Department press briefing, John Kirby offered few details about the outcome of the dialogue to reporters, saying only that a “wide range of human rights issues” were discussed, including “individual cases of concern.”
U.S. defense officials refused to comment publicly on the lifting of the embargo, since the policy decision ultimately rests with the State Department. But more broadly, they say privately that Vietnam, which borders China, continues to push for stronger defense ties with the United States, in no small part due to Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea disputes, which Hanoi is involved in.
“[C]ountries in Southeast Asia are coming to us to encourage us to remain strongly engaged in the region and to remain strongly engaged with them in particular, and that’s true of the Vietnamese,” a U.S. official told The Diplomat recently when asked about the future potential for bilateral defense relations, including a full lifting of the embargo.
“It helps them generate leverage vis-à-vis China,” the official said.
U.S. and Vietnamese officials familiar with the defense relationship maintain that in spite of any lifting, major defense contracts and transfers could take some time because they are contingent on other factors, including growing Vietnamese familiarization with U.S. procurement procedures relative to its other traditional defense partners like Russia. Though the partial lifting has seen the U.S. announce the provision of patrol vessels to Vietnam to enhance the its maritime domain awareness and maritime security, The Diplomat understands that progress on other fronts, including Washington’s new Maritime Security Initiative, has been slow (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia”).
In accordance with U.S. foreign assistance and arms export control laws, the State Department would also have to notify Congress on any future arms transfers that meet the appropriate thresholds following the lifting of the embargo.
That said, there is little question that the move would be historic in the context of U.S.-Vietnam defense ties and the comprehensive partnership more generally. Vietnamese officials have long said that an end to the embargo would be a clear indication that relations have been fully normalized.
The timing of the move would also be significant if it is done during Obama’s visit. As one Vietnamese official told The Diplomat, the move comes during a year of transition for both countries, with the quinquennial Party Congress in Vietnam held earlier this year and a U.S. presidential election this November. It will also occur amidst what could be a busy summer in the South China Sea, particularly with the upcoming verdict on the Philippines’ South China Sea case against China being issued in May or June and other regional meetings including the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?”).
With Obama’s visit, he will become the third consecutive U.S. president to visit Vietnam with less than a year left in his presidency (See: “Obama Will Visit Vietnam in May 2016 to Boost Ties“). The Diplomat understands that both sides will also look to make progress on other issues during the visit, including the war legacy and economics. Vietnam is one of four Southeast Asian countries that are part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a mammoth free trade pact whose 12 current members comprise around 40 percent of the global economy.
“In May, when Air Force One touches down on Vietnamese soil and President Obama greets the people of Vietnam, he will prove, once again, that former adversaries can become the firmest of partners,” Blinken said in his speech last week.