Ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam later this week, U.S. officials – at least publicly – say they have yet to determine whether it is time to fully lift the arms embargo to Vietnam that was eased back in 2014. Though a full lifting of the ban is an issue of when rather than if in the context of the burgeoning U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership, there is a strong case for doing away with it sooner rather than later.
Over the past few years, Vietnam has emerged as a country increasingly central to U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific in spite of the lingering challenges inherent in the two-decade old diplomatic relationship. Economically, for instance, Hanoi is one of just four Southeast Asian countries that is party to the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and is an important partner in ongoing U.S. regional initiatives as well such as the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI). And on defense, Vietnam, a frontline state in the South China Sea disputes, has not only been a member of key U.S. initiatives like the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), but has worked with Washington to enhance its contributions to global security in fields like peacekeeping (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia”).
Despite this , a ban on lethal defense articles – left on the books during Bill Clinton’s presidency even as normalization began – still remains largely in place, despite an easing back in October 2014. Even though speculation has been rife that the Obama administration may finally fully lift it, on Thursday Ben Rhodes, one of the president’s closest advisers, told reporters that no decision had been made, and that Obama would outline how the administration intends to approach the embargo in meetings with Vietnamese officials during the trip (See: “Exclusive: US May Lift Vietnam Arms Embargo for Obama Visit”).
Which ever way the administration chooses to proceed, it is abundantly clear that full lifting of the embargo would advance that relationship both symbolically and substantively. Symbolically, as Vietnamese officials have repeatedly pointed out, a lifting would be a clear indication that relations have been fully normalized. And if it is done before Obama leaves office, it would be in line with the narrative that the administration has embraced in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship: putting aside the past and looking toward the future– whether it be through addressing war legacy issues or opening a new Fulbright University in Vietnam.
More broadly, it would also be yet another powerful case within the Obama administration’s foreign policy that advances can be made even in previously challenging relationships. As Rhodes put it at an event at the Center for New American Security in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, a big part of the Obama administration’s foreign policy has been defined by pursuing previously untapped opportunities to make progress in important relationships – as can be seen in the cases of the Iran nuclear deal, the normalization of ties with Cuba, and greater engagement Myanmar. Though relations with Vietnam were already normalized back in 1995, the lifting of the embargo would nonetheless be the realization of one such untapped opportunity.
Substantively, the embargo would pave the way for eventual U.S. arms sales to Vietnam. Though Vietnam is already scheduled to receive U.S.-made Metal Shark patrol boats soon, Hanoi would be able to buy other maritime and aerial platforms that it could use for its defense. Arms sales are not just a potential economic boost for U.S. companies but a strategic opportunity for Washington to more fully participate in Vietnamese capacity-building, which in turn allows Hanoi to contribute more to global security. Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam and a longtime proponent of closer ties, summed it up best when he said in a statement Wednesday that “we cannot ask our partners to contribute more while continuing to take steps to directly limit the level of their contribution.”
Lifting the ban would also strengthen Washington’s bargaining position to seek further boosts in the bilateral defense relationship from Hanoi. Given the significance of the move from the U.S. side, there would be an even greater incentive for Vietnam to then consider proposals Washington has made to advance the defense relationship even further which had previously been turned down, including on naval engagements and defense trade as part of the new joint vision statement on defense relations signed by both sides last year during U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s visit to the country (See: “US, Vietnam Deepen Defense Ties”).
To be clear, major defense contracts and transfers could take some time because they are contingent on other factors, including growing Vietnam’s familiarization with U.S. procurement procedures relative to its other traditional defense partners like Russia. And it would be unrealistic to expect some kind of dramatic altering of Vietnam’s strategic orientation towards Washington given Hanoi’s omnidirectional foreign policy as well as its own concerns about angering neighboring China. As the administration has rightly internalized, this is not part of some strategy to contain China, but one of a series of steps towards helping nurture a strong and secure Vietnam capable of defending itself and playing a greater role in the region and world. As deals are eventually realized, platforms, when combined with other U.S. capacity-building efforts like MSI, can help boost interoperability and generate other knock-on effects in U.S.-Vietnam defense relations.
The chief argument advanced by opponents of lifting the arms embargo is that a full lifting would fly in the face of lingering concerns about Vietnam’s human rights record. To be sure, this ought to be a factor in U.S. calculations about the pace at which the embargo is lifted, as it has been for years and will continue to be. Rights groups have also rightly pointed to worrying examples of violations in recent weeks ahead of parliamentary elections on May 22, including mistreatment of protesters following an environmental disaster involving contaminated fish. More broadly, the calibration of U.S. ideals and interests has significance not only for the U.S.-Vietnam relationship, but the U.S. rights agenda in the region more generally.
But it is also true that advances in this domain will always be incremental because of the nature of Vietnam’s system, and that pushing Hanoi too hard and too unfairly on the issue will only serve to exacerbate lingering mistrust, rather than ameliorate it. Just like the United States has its issues with rights in Vietnam, Hanoi also has its own concerns – however misplaced – about U.S. attempts to overthrow its socialist regime through “peaceful evolution.” Any U.S. evaluation of Vietnam’s human rights record must be fair and realistic in acknowledging both the progress Hanoi has made thus far as well as the challenges that remain in the context of the country’s domestic political environment. This is not capitulation but compromise – a necessary ingredient in any partnership.
Furthermore, even if the administration decides to lift the ban, there are still ways for the United States to exert leverage on Vietnam with respect to legitimate U.S. rights concerns. For instance, a point often missed in this polarized debate is that even if the ban is fully lifted, as with a partial lifting, there would need to be a process initiated for any potential arms transfers for it to actually take off, which requires congressional approval under U.S. law. That gives the United States the ability to still tie rights improvements to particular sales. Top U.S. Asia diplomat Daniel Russel alluded to that point Wednesday when he told reporters that even the partial lifting had still not resulted in an “opening of floodgates” in terms of new arms sales. Other sources of leverage also exist beyond the embargo, with the most obvious one being the TPP, which has human rights implications as well since Vietnam has already had to make several reforms in fields like labor to meet the standards of the agreement.
Some – including those supportive of the eventual lifting of the ban –have argued that it may be too soon to do so now. They point to the fact that there is significant opposition in pockets of Congress on human rights grounds, as evidenced by comments in recent hearings as well as letters sent by lawmakers ahead of the visit. Though a full lift would ultimately be a State Department policy decision following interagency discussions and consultations with Congress, the administration may have its own strategic reasons for not wanting to push this now. With some lawmakers already opposed to Vietnam being part of TPP for various reasons, the administration may choose to wait until after the lame-duck session of Congress when a crucial TPP vote is held before announcing a full lift, Michael Green, former top White House adviser and longtime Asia expert, said at a briefing Tuesday.
Though there are legitimate considerations to hold off on a full lift, there is a case to be made for urgency too – apart, of course, from the significance of the move being made during a presidential visit to Vietnam, which ought not to be understated. If done soon, the symbolic and substantive benefits of the lifting would occur within the context of an upcoming decision on the much-awaited Philippine South China Sea case against China at the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), expected sometime in the next few months (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?”). It would send a powerful message to China that with its destabilizing acts – including positioning an oil rig in Vietnam’s waters in 2014 – Beijing is causing countries to move closer to the United States and effectively containing itself.
Lifting the ban now would also give the Obama administration more time to follow up on other potential items in the U.S.-Vietnam defense relationship before the transition to the next American president begins in January 2017. As I have stressed before, it is imperative that Obama and his team – which have been strongly committed to Southeast Asia – complete as much of their intended subregional agenda as possible before leaving office. Apart from Hillary Clinton, there is no guarantee that any of the other U.S. presidential candidates still standing would necessarily demonstrate the same regard for Southeast Asia. Indeed, with the next U.S. president likely to confront a more tumultuous and fragmented world – with a dangerous Islamic State, simmering Middle East, resurgent Russia, frail Europe and weak global economy – there may be relatively less of a focus on Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, even if the bilateral relationship continues to advance (See: “Why the US-ASEAN Sunnylands Summit Matters”).
Of course, there are also ways to split the difference on this question. The administration may decide, for instance, to further ease the ban but not lift it fully, or perhaps announce some deals under the partial lifting now and leave any policy change for later. What is undisputable, though, is that even with a full lifting, Washington can both realize the symbolic and substantive benefits as well as address the legitimate concerns shared by some. And as a result, there is little reason for this relic to remain in place for much longer as both sides look to the future.