Obama’s Visit to Vietnam: A Turning Point?

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Obama’s Visit to Vietnam: A Turning Point?

The visit did result in the lifting of the arms embargo, but the context is far wider.

Obama’s Visit to Vietnam: A Turning Point?
Credit: Flickr/ U.S. Embassy Hanoi

U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Vietnam fulfilled a promise he made to Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang in 2013 to do his “level best” to visit Vietnam before his term in office expired.

In 2015, there was much speculation in Hanoi that both Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping would visit Vietnam at the end of the year. Obama’s trip was postponed, while Xi gave his hosts extremely short notice of his intention to visit in November. As a result Vietnam had to juggle the long-scheduled visits of the presidents of Italy and Iceland to accommodate Xi.

Obama’s re-scheduled visit was originally set for May 21-23, but was unexpectedly pushed back at short-notice to May 23-25.

While no official reason was given, Obama’s original arrival date coincided with elections for Vietnam’s National Assembly and on-going public protests over the mass poisoning of fish in central Vietnam reportedly due to industrial pollution. Placards carried in public by protesters called on the government to be more transparent in dealing with this environmental disaster. It is likely Obama’s original visit could have served as a lightning rod for protesters.

In the end, Obama arrived at night on May 22 without incident. His visit was much more about the protocol of reciprocating the earlier visit of Vietnam’s head of state. It is evident that Obama has set about clearing the deck of legacies of the past in America’s relations with Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, and Vietnam in his final months in office. In Vietnam’s case, Obama completely lifted the U.S. ban on the sale of lethal weapons that he said had been in place for five decades.

Complicated History of the Arms Embargo

This matter is slightly more complicated. In the aftermath of the Gulf of Tonkin incidents in August 1964, the United States imposed an embargo on North Vietnam. This was extended in 1975 when Vietnam was re-unified.

In December 1984, the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations (ITAR) was adopted. ITAR imposed an arms ban “on countries or areas with respect to which the United States maintains an arms embargo or whenever an export would not otherwise be in furtherance of world peace and the security and foreign policy of the United States.” Vietnam was included in ITAR restrictions along with Albania, Bulgaria, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Estonia, Hungary, Kampuchea, Latvia, Lithuania, North Korea, Outer Mongolia, Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union.

Despite the Clinton Administration’s decision to remove the embargo completely in February 1994, the ITAR restrictions remained in place as a relic of the Cold War.

In October 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the partial lifting of the sale of lethal weapons on a case-by-case basis to assist building Vietnam’s capacity for maritime security with a specific focus on defensive weapons for the Vietnam Coast Guard.

Vietnam took no action to procure weapons at this time. Why? Two explanations have been put forward. The first explanation is that Vietnam had no idea what items it could successfully request. The second explanation is that Vietnam was anxious not to be locked into a partial arms ban. Vietnam, therefore, kept pressing the United State to fully lift its arms ban to end what was perceived as unwarranted discrimination rooted in the legacy of the Cold War.

As noted by President Tran Dai Quang at his joint press conference with President Obama on May 23, the complete lifting of the ban on lethal weapons “is clear proof that both countries have completely normalized [their] relations.”

Arms Sales and Human Rights

It has been long-standing U.S. policy to link lethal arms sales to Vietnam’s human rights record.  Since the lifting of the arms ban there has been intense discussion about these two intertwined issues.

In June 2013, Presidents Obama and Sang met at the Oval Office in the White House and issued a Joint Statement on Comprehensive Partnership outlining nine broad areas of cooperation including the promotion and protection of human rights.

The paragraph on human rights clearly pointed out differences between the two sides but it concluded with Vietnamese commitments to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, and to receive the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Vietnam met both promises.

Since 2013, Vietnam has increased the number of church registrations and has modified its Law on Marriage and no longer criminalizes same sex partnerships. Vietnam promulgated amendments to its state Constitution in January 2014 that included clauses on human rights (Article 3), freedom of religion (Article 24), and free speech, press, access to information, assembly, association, and demonstrations–to be prescribed by law (Article 25).

In November 2014, Vietnam’s National Assembly also promulgated a new penal code, criminal procedure code, law on custody and temporary detention, civil code, and civil procedure code that more positively addressed the rights of Vietnamese citizens.

In advance of Obama’s visit Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, were dispatched to Hanoi to sound out Vietnam’s leaders. Both officials were tight-lipped about the results of their discussions in Hanoi. On May 10, when Russel was questioned by the media whether the arms ban would be lifted, he replied, “Well no decision has been made on the question of the status of the U.S. lethal weapons ban which has been in place for decades, but it is an issue that is under periodic review.”

At the same time, human rights groups, congressmen, and a New York Times editorial all argued that the ban should be kept in place. Just before Obama arrived, the Vietnamese authorities released a long-term political activist, Father Nguyen Van Ly.

According to diplomatic observers consulted by The Diplomat, Obama’s decision to lift the arms ban was made at the last minute. At the joint press conference on May 23, Obama announced that the United States “is fully lifting the ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam.” He also added this rider: “As will all our defense partners, sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those related to human rights.”

The China Factor

During the question and answer period at the press conference, Obama was asked whether the lifting of the arms ban was aimed at building up Vietnam’s military deterrent against China and by implication would result in expanded U.S. access to Vietnamese ports including Cam Ranh Bay. And, more pointedly, the same journalist asked, “to what degree will the U.S. decide on weapons sales based on human rights considerations?”

Obama responded that “the decision to lift this ban was not based on China or any other consideration” other than “our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalization.” He then expanded on his earlier remarks that relations with Vietnam had developed to such an extent that it was not appropriate “to have a blanket across-the-board ban… [or] a ban that’s based on an ideological division between our two countries.”

Modest Progress on Human Rights

As for the second part of the question President Obama noted with respect to human rights, “this is an area where we still have differences. There’s been modest progress on some of the areas that we’ve identified as a concern.” He gave as an example the right of workers to organize unions under the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.

On the following day, May 24, Secretary of State John Kerry attended a press briefing and was asked, “how can you manage… so many fundamental differences between governments?” Kerry replied:

Well, look, we’re making progress. Last year… they released a number of prisoners. They had about 160, I think; 60 or so were released. There had been increased freedom of worship. The church has been recognized. Handicapped efforts have been recognized. So there’s some progress.

Civil Society

But the press conference revealed one setback that took place less than 24 hours after Quang and Obama released their joint statement. According to Eric Schultz, the principal deputy press secretary, the U.S. delegation learned overnight “that there were a number of individuals who were being prevented from, or dissuaded from attending the meeting with the President. We (Secretary Kerry and White House officials) protested to the government.”

Nonetheless, according to Schultz, President Obama was able to hold an unprecedented meeting on May 24 with a small group representing Vietnamese civil society, including “advocates around issues like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, disability rights, freedom of worship. But there were a number of individuals who were not able to attend.” Schultz also commented that this meeting “was something that was a source of significant discomfort for the government.”

Rotational Presence at Cam Ranh Bay?

In sum, the lifting of the ITAR restrictions on Vietnam was more symbolic and political than it was in substance. Immediately after the restrictions were lifted the media and other commentators speculated that U.S. access to Cam Ranh Bay on a rotational basis was a quid pro quo for the lifting of the sanctions.

Vietnam is currently revising its Defense White Paper that was due for release last year but was held over until after the conclusion of the 12th national party congress in January. Vietnamese military sources report that the White Paper, which is now in its final stages, will be revised to take into account the lifting of the ITAR restrictions.

Vietnam’s most recent Defense White Paper, published in 2009, states “Vietnam consistently advocates neither joining any military alliances nor giving any other country permission to have military bases or use its soil to carry out military activities against other countries.”

Late last year, Vietnam opened a new port at Cam Ranh Bay. The United States is welcome to use this port on the same basis as the navies from other countries. It is unlikely that Vietnam will agree to a rotational U.S. presence in parallel with U.S. arrangements with the Philippines.

Under current Vietnamese restrictions each country is entitled to one naval port call per year. There are signs this restriction may be eased to permit the visit of vessels engaged in humanitarian assistance. As noted by Obama on 24 May,

We expect that there will be deepening cooperation between out militaries, oftentimes around how do we respond to humanitarian disasters in this region. There may be occasions in which that means that additional U.S. vessels might visit, but I want to emphasize that we will do so only at the invitation and with the cooperation of the Vietnamese government, fully respecting their sovereignty and their sensitivities.

In addition, during Obama’s visit, the two sides signed a Letter of Intent to set up a working group for the Cooperative Humanitarian and Medical Storage Initiative that could see the pre-positioning of supplies in central Vietnam for use in a natural disaster.

Arms Sales on a Case-by-Case Basis

As President Obama and Secretary Kerry made clear, restrictions on the sale of weapons to Vietnam as well as the status of human rights would be taken into account in considering each request for arms procurements. As noted by Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, at a press briefing on May 24:

… as with any other country, we do review each weapons sale on a case-by-base basis. So it will continue to be the case that as we are considering certain arms sales to Vietnam we will look at a variety of factors… (including) the trajectory of the human rights picture in Vietnam as (we) make those decisions.

Strategic Partnership?

According to uncorroborated Vietnamese sources in Hanoi, prior to Obama’s visit, U.S. officials proposed to their hosts the possibility of raising their comprehensive partnership to a strategic partnership. Vietnamese officials reportedly got cold feet at the last minute and politely left this proposal for future consideration.

At the same time, although U.S. officials, including the president, described bilateral relations as entering a new phase, no new adjective was placed in front of comprehensive partnership in the official joint statement issued by the two presidents to indicate that relations had advanced significantly since 2013.

In 2009, for example, Australia and Vietnam characterized their bilateral relations as a comprehensive partnership. In 2015, on the occasion of the visit by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, the two sides issued a Declaration on Enhancing the Australia-Vietnam Cooperative Partnership. Japan and Vietnam became strategic partners in 2006; in 2015, they raised bilateral relations to an Extensive Strategic Partnership.

The lifting of all ITAR restrictions on the sale of military weapons and equipment to Vietnam opens the door to wide-ranging discussions between Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense, the Pentagon, and U.S. defense industries. As reported by Wendell Minnick, U.S. defense industry sources indicate that Vietnam is interested in procuring Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; air defense systems; P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft; and F-16 fighter planes.

Vietnam is also deliberately trying to diversify its sources of defense equipment and technology. Russia remains the main supplier but Vietnamese defense officials privately note that there are “some difficulties” in defense procurement arrangements. These concerns have intensified as Russia and China forge closer ties.

In 2015 Vietnam officially retired four regiments of its MiG-21 jet fighter aircraft and reports that it is considering procuring the F-16 are plausible. The F-16 is widely used by air forces in East Asia including Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand.

The unresolved questions are whether human rights considerations will spike U.S. arms sales or whether strategic considerations will trump human rights concerns. Obama’s visit to Vietnam indicates that both sides have expanded their dialogue from a narrow focus on political and civil rights to a broader view that incorporates labor rights, human security, and legal reforms to bring Vietnam’s domestic legislation into line with provisions in its state constitution and international obligations.