In a historic move, U.S. President Barack Obama announced Monday that Washington was fully lifting a decades-old embargo on the sale of arms to Vietnam during his first visit to the Southeast Asian country, ending weeks of speculation about the move (See: “Exclusive: US May Lift Vietnam Arms Embargo for Obama Visit”). The step is a significant one not just for U.S.-Vietnam relations, but also for Obama’s foreign policy legacy and broader regional dynamics in the Asia-Pacific (See: “The Case for Lifting the US Vietnam Arms Embargo”).
The significance of the move is clearest for the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relationship, which began the process of normalization under former president Bill Clinton in 1995. Symbolically, the lifting of the embargo – following a partial lift in October 2014 – represents a removal of an obstacle from the past – a “lingering vestige of the Cold War,” as Obama put it in his remarks in Hanoi – that paves the way for improved relations in the future (See: “Obama Fully Lifts Vietnam Arms Embargo on Visit”). Vietnamese officials have long said that a lifting would be a sign that relations have been fully normalized. The step is also in line with the narrative both sides have embraced of putting aside the past and looking toward the future in the relationship.
Substantively, this is a big step for U.S.-Vietnam defense cooperation, even if the payoff may not be as quickly realized as some might hope. Following the signing of the 2015 Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations between the two sides last June, a full lifting removes remaining restrictions on Washington’s latitude to provide Hanoi with weapons for its defense, even though any actual sales would still have to meet strict requirements and will be approved on a case-by-case basis (See: “US, Vietnam Deepen Defense Ties”). Sales will also be contingent on other factors, including growing Vietnam’s familiarization with U.S. procurement procedures relative to its other traditional defense partners like Russia. That said, both sides have taken recent steps to address this that could pave the way for future deals – including the holding of a defense industry symposium earlier this month to facilitate interactions between Vietnamese officials and U.S. defense firms.
But the move has significance beyond the bilateral relationship as well. The president’s advisers, as well as Obama himself, view the positive trajectory of U.S.-Vietnam relations as a boost for the administration’s focus on engagement as well as its cultivation of new partners in the U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. On the former, a major aspect of Obama’s foreign policy has been pursuing previously untapped opportunities to make progress in important but previously problematic relationships – as can be seen in the cases of the Iran nuclear deal, the normalization of ties with Cuba, and greater engagement with Myanmar. Though relations with Vietnam were already normalized back in 1995, the lifting of the embargo, a realization of one such untapped opportunity, is read to be part of a deliberate effort to boost the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership first inked in 2013 even further, in spite of traditional concerns over human rights and democracy.
In terms of the U.S. pivot or rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, the lifting of the embargo is testament to the significance that Washington has placed in Southeast Asia on emerging partnerships with Vietnam along with other countries like Malaysia (in addition to traditional treaty alliances in Thailand and the Philippines). The move – which took some heavy lifting domestically and is already sparking outcry among activists, rights groups and some lawmakers – was taken in spite of this in part as an acknowledgement by Washington of Vietnam’s own rising strategic importance within U.S. Asia policy, as well as its role in the region and world.
Hanoi’s involvement in a range of key U.S.-led initiatives – from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to the new Maritime Security Initiative – along with its increasing contributions to the region and the world in fields like peacekeeping, has meant that its value to the United States has risen significantly relative to even just a few years ago (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia”). Indeed, in spite of limits such as human rights, administration officials often seem to be running out of adjectives to describe the upward trajectory of the relationship over the past two decades – from “impressive” to “remarkable” to “breathtaking”. And the lifting opens the door to even more opportunities on the defense side that could see Hanoi’s place in the regional picture grow even further into the future.
Finally, the impact of the lifting, along with its timing, means that it will have important implications for regional dynamics as well. Most obviously, the fact that it comes on the heels of the much-awaited Philippine South China Sea case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) sends a powerful message to China and the region (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?”). Contrary to some interpretations – including some coming out of Beijing – the message is not about containing China. Rather, it is that China’s own destabilizing acts, as evidenced in the South China Sea with moves such as positioning an oil rig in Vietnam’s waters in 2014, are causing countries to move closer to the United States and leading Beijing to contain itself. The Philippines’s signing of a new defense pact with the United States in 2014 is yet another example of this trend, along with other access agreements Washington has concluded with Southeast Asian states (See: “A Big Deal? US, Philippines Agree First ‘Bases’ Under New Defense Pact”).
So while the impact of the lifting of the U.S. arms embargo to Vietnam will largely be viewed through the lens of the bilateral relationship, in reality its significance extends far beyond that. As we head into the last remaining months of this administration as well as what is likely to be a busy summer in the South China Sea, that is a point worth remembering.