President Obama’s visit to Vietnam was a real success, although both sides did not address points of tensions (war reparations, Agent Orange) and different approaches to societal organization (socialism versus western democracy). The common denominator was Asia’s future development and its relationship with China, which has developed into an open rivalry.
The U.S. fully lifting the lethal arms embargo was actually not surprising at all. The timing was good and the geopolitical environment called for a substantial improvement in the diplomatic ties initiated by the U.S. It is a smart decision as it outlines that Washington is indeed willing to overcome historic difficulties with Vietnam and look to a future in which both sides can cooperate to address common challenges.
Lifting the arms ban allows Vietnam to diversify its defense supplies and improve its position as a regional middle power. The U.S., moreover, needs a strong partner like Vietnam in the region in order to tackle China’s rise. Without partners in the region, Washington will have much greater difficulties in addressing the challenge China’s greater political, economic and military profile is creating.
According to the World Bank, in October 2014, China’s economy surpassed that of the U.S. in purchasing power parity terms (PPP). This is the first time since 1872 that the U.S. did not have the world’s biggest economy (at least in PPP). Washington’s need for regional partners also puts Vietnam in a good position to extract benefits (e.g. when it comes to diplomatic support with regards to South China Sea disputes [Vietnam's East Sea]) and create business opportunities (economically, Vietnam is closely interlinked with China - better relations with the U.S. will help to diversify Vietnam's economic profile). Obama, finally, also wants to use his final months in office in order to make historic steps internationally - visiting Hiroshima and improving Vietnamese-U.S. relations have to been seen in this regard.
Obama saying that lifting the ban has nothing to do with China is truly a meaningless diplomatic gesture and I cannot help but think that he should have been more honest on this point. De facto the lifting of the ban is directly targeted against China. The regional impact will be small, but Beijing might nevertheless make a lot of noise.
Still, it is unlikely that Vietnam is moving too much away from Russia, its main defense supplier. Russia has been a very reliable supplier of arms, and both sides have developed strong trust. Most Russian arms are also cheaper than U.S. ones. However, in order to enter the Vietnamese arms market, Washington might be forced to make arms offers to Vietnam at a bargain price or offer technology the Russians have so far not been willing to supply. However, Indonesia’s history provides a warning of becoming too dependent on U.S. arms, which have often been used as a point of diplomatic pressure.
Vietnam is a very important regional nation given its location, size, military posture and economic growth patterns. Regional diplomatic initiatives will lead nowhere if not backed also by Vietnam. I think the U.S. wants to help Vietnam to play an even more important part in the regional diplomatic architecture, although this might mean Vietnam will need to align itself with many of Washington’s political positions. The bigger Vietnam gets, the more difficult diplomatic and strategic decisions will have to be made - also because other regional and extra-regional states (ASEAN, E.U.) will look to Vietnam for further exercising responsible diplomacy and leadership.
It is not unlikely that some minor weapons deals will follow to test the waters and to signal to China that change is happening no matter what the leadership in Beijing wants. Regional states can decide for themselves. Importantly, the strategic ties between Vietnam and the U.S. will likely deepen further due to their shared interests, and economic relations will certainly grow.
I see a real possibility for a strategic partnership between the two countries to take place over the next years, but we will have to wait for a new U.S. administration to begin its term. However, there has been a proliferation of "strategic partnerships" all over the planet in the last decades and leaders in Hanoi and Washington need to make sure that such a proclaimed partnership between them is indeed substantial and not only a paper tiger. Recent comments by leaders of both countries make me positive that this task will be achieved.
As for China’s response, it will publicly complain and might put some form of economic pressure on Vietnam, yet it will continue its assertive policies in the South China Sea (Vietnam's East Sea). It is unlikely that Beijing will use the latest diplomatic development as an incentive to alter course and engage more closely with Vietnam with regards to the South China Sea (Vietnam's East Sea) disputes. Although, this might actually be a wise decision - granting Hanoi some concessions in order to prevent the Vietnamese-U.S. partnership from growing too strongly.
Both Vietnam and the U.S. need each other, but there is no real lever Washington has over Hanoi so U.S. influence over Vietnamese policies will remain very limited - even more so due to the fact that Vietnam has good ties with Russia and India. As a middle power, Vietnam can thus pick its partners according to the level of converging interests and the provided benefits - a comfortable position in many ways.
Enrico Fels is a research fellow and lecturer at the Center for Global Studies (CGS), University of Bonn. He holds a Bachelors degree from Ruhr-University Bochum and has a Masters degree from the Australian National University, where he also was a T.B. Millar Scholar in Strategic and Defence Studies. He leads the CGS research group on “Security and Diplomacy” and is co-editor to the book “Power in the 21st Century. International Security and International Political Economy in a Changing World.” This piece is based on an interview with VnExpress reporter Viet Anh.