Fully lifting U.S. lethal arms ban will add momentum to U.S.-Vietnam relations

May 18, 2016 | 11:33 pm PT
Murray Hiebert‏ and Phuong Nguyen
Ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam in late May, officials and analysts in both Washington and Hanoi have been talking about whether the United States should fully lift the ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam that was imposed when the Vietnam-American War ended in 1975. The issue has been given added urgency as bilateral relations have increasingly warmed and in light of shared U.S. and Vietnamese interests in preserving maritime security in the South China Sea (Vietnam's East Sea).

The Obama administration partially eased the ban in October 2014 in an effort to help Vietnam improve its maritime security capabilities and in response to “modest” improvements in Vietnam’s human rights record. Vietnamese officials have since called for the ban to be fully lifted. To Hanoi, the continuation of the ban means that relations, including military ties, have not been fully normalized. Here lies the difference in views between the two sides.

As Hanoi and Washington began to explore substantive ways to boost ties earlier in the U.S. rebalance to Asia, U.S. officials forged the link between removal of the ban and progress on human rights as a way to maintain leverage. The linkage was made on the premise that Vietnam has an interest in seeking closer security cooperation with the United States in the face of China’s increasingly assertive posture in the South China Sea.

The strategic milieu of U.S.-Vietnam relations has evolved since then. While it was not entirely clear at first how committed Vietnam would be as a partner in U.S.-led efforts to foster a regional order based on international rules and norms, the two countries have made significant strides in recent years. They upgraded relations to a comprehensive partnership in 2013, embarked on Coast Guard cooperation the same year, and inked a joint vision statement on advancing bilateral defense relations in 2015. Most significantly, Vietnam concluded negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement with the United States and 10 other countries last October.

Signing on to the TPP was not an easy decision for Hanoi. Given Vietnam’s political sensitivities and level of economic development, Vietnamese leaders would not have stuck with the difficult negotiations unless they had confidence in the United States’ ability to lead the region in future years, according to a senior U.S. diplomat. Vietnam joined the TPP in 2009, yet uncertainty was rife over whether Hanoi’s collective leadership would back the deal, and whether Vietnam would be able to conclude the talks. In the end, Vietnam delivered on both counts.

State Department officials often refer to the TPP as “the most important piece of human rights legislation” in the context of Vietnam. For instance, under the TPP labor implementation plan negotiated between the United States and Vietnam, Hanoi agreed to carry out legal reforms to allow workers freedom of association, collective bargaining power, and the right to hold strikes. Vietnam pledged to adhere to labor standards set by the International Labor Organization and to be subject to periodic reviews of its labor rights record once the TPP takes effect.

Lawmakers in the U.S. Congress who have emphasized the need for Vietnam to demonstrate concrete progress on rights issues have a chance to help enforce these labor standards by getting behind the TPP. But retaining the lethal arms ban under current circumstances is of little strategic value to the United States.

Despite significant milestones in U.S.-Vietnam defense relations in recent years, the two militaries have really just begun to get to know each other. Many in Hanoi still question whether the United States intends to work with Vietnam in a serious and constructive manner in the coming years. This feeling of suspicion is not new— it can be traced back to the period after the Vietnam-American War when Hanoi and Washington were estranged and struggled to establish rules of engagement before normalizing diplomatic relations in 1995.

The two countries have since worked hard to address the vestiges of mutual suspicion, one step at a time. Last year, this took the form of the first-ever visit of a Vietnamese Communist Party chief, the country’s highest political leader, to the White House — a signal that the two sides respect each other’s political systems. This year, it will be Obama’s first visit to Vietnam, and the third consecutive trip by a U.S. president since normalization of ties.

Fully lifting the U.S. lethal arms ban will remove another remaining vestige of distrust between the two new partners. Different actors within the U.S. government have been weighing the benefits and costs of this move. Proponents of the full removal, including Senator John McCain, point to the value in forging closer maritime security collaboration with Vietnam’s fast-growing military. Critics, including some who support the upward trajectory of U.S.-Vietnam relations in general, have honed in on the need for more progress on human rights prior to any decision. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Vietnam to release all political prisoners unconditionally during his visit to Hanoi last month.

For Washington, the rationale behind fully removing the ban should be reciprocity, but not exclusively in terms of human rights improvements. Instead, lifting the ban could be messaged as a confidence-building measure to convey to Hanoi that the United States in return would like to see Vietnam take increased initiatives in the next phase of defense relations, particularly in the area of defense trade.

Initial efforts in this area are under way but are still in the early stages. The U.S. Department of Defense and Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense last year launched a working group on defense trade, allowing representatives from both the Vietnamese and U.S. defense industries to be part of the official mechanism of defense policy dialogue between the two ministries. Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi has played a crucial role in helping Vietnamese policymakers become more acquainted with the U.S. defense procurement process since the partial lifting of the ban.

Vietnam wants and needs to steadily pursue military modernization, and it values U.S. military technology as a potential source of strategic leverage. Not only does Vietnam need to build an effective deterrent force in the face of China’s aggressiveness — it was the world’s eighth largest arms importer between 2011 and 2015 — it also prefers to gradually reduce its overreliance on Russian-made systems and forge interoperability with its emerging regional partners, including Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and the United States. However, the uncertainty created by the ban complicates Vietnam’s calculus in moving forward with the United States in this area.

Some express concern that removing the ban might open the door for Hanoi to acquire military equipment that could be used for human rights violations. But even in the absence of a ban, Vietnam will need to jump through the rigorous approval process by U.S. government agencies and Congress, as do other countries that purchase U.S. weapon systems. It makes little sense when the U.S. government has been training Vietnam’s military in international peacekeeping that Washington still maintains a ban against Hanoi.

For its part, Vietnam can be expected to calibrate when and what it will purchase from U.S. defense manufacturers. This is partly due to technical reasons, as Vietnam will need to integrate U.S.-made hardware into its current platforms, but more importantly, because Hanoi does not want Beijing to perceive any such moves as a threat to which it needs to respond.

Ultimately, U.S. foreign policy is most effective when leaders use the right tools in their toolkit. Obama has a critical opportunity during his visit to communicate to Vietnamese leaders U.S. thinking about whether and under what circumstances the remaining arms ban would be lifted. The U.S. Congress will have a chance to reassess the situation following Obama’s visit. But the utility of the arms ban on Vietnam has outlived its usefulness.

Murray Hiebert is a senior adviser and deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow him on twitter @MurrayHiebert1. Phuong Nguyen is an associate fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS. Follow her on twitter @PNguyen_DC.

This article first appeared on the CSIS Asia Policy Blog, CogitAsia, here. Reposted with permission.

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