U.S. Debates Removal of Weapons Ban on Vietnam as China Asserts Territorial Claims

By Sarah Sicard
With relations warming, the U.S. ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam has come into question. Some government officials in both the United States and Vietnam are advocating for restrictions to be repealed, citing a need to boost Vietnam's defense capabilities in the face of a rising China, according to a recent think tank report.
Over the last decade, the United States has developed a close working relationship with Vietnam, and the two militaries have become strategically close. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey visited the country in mid-August and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is tentatively scheduled to go there in November, said a Center for Strategic a International Studies report,Washington Needs a Plan for Lifting Its Weapons Sales Ban on Vietnam authored by Murray Hiebert and Phuong Nguyen.
Despite progress, the United States still maintains the ban, reiterating that its removal will not be possible without Vietnamese cooperation in addressing its human rights violations, the report said. 
Consideration for lifting the ban has been gaining momentum since the beginning of the summer. With support from advocates such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Osius, nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, talks about removing the ban have intensified, the report said. Vietnamese officials also favor a relaxation of the ban, with removal following close after, it added.
Daniel Darling, Forecast International's Europe and Asia-Pacific military markets analyst, said the process to ease the ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam has been a slow, but steady one since the middle of the past decade. 
Relations between the two countries have warmed considerably since the Clinton administration, with ties continuing to improve under both the Bush and Obama administrations, he said. 
"The United States and Vietnam share economic ties, maritime security concerns and, in particular, worries over the long-term ambitions of China," Darling said.
The issues involving China are of particular importance to U.S. maritime trade and security interests in the Asia-Pacific. Vietnam's location gives it a strong geographic foothold in the region. And while tensions between China and Vietnam have been longstanding, China's increased aggression in the South China Sea has served as a catalyst for discussion, the report said.
Darling said: "The competing territorial claims of Vietnam and Beijing in the South China Sea often serve as a touchstone for gauging how the two countries interact in the public eye, and the latest incident back in May involving China's state-owned national offshore oil company placing an oil rig in Vietnamese-claimed waters sparked a public outcry inside Vietnam."
However, there are some who suggest that Chinese aggression as a motivator for lifting the ban may not make for a fruitful alliance between the United States and Vietnam.
"There is no doubt that Chinese aggression will be a significant factor in the decision to lift the weapons ban against Vietnam, but it is not the only factor," said Olivia Enos, a research assistant with the Heritage Foundation's Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy. "There is also the fact that Vietnam does not necessarily share a U.S. interest in balancing against China — the assumption that underlies so much of the advocacy on this issue."
According to the CSIS report, some officials in Washington are concerned that by lifting the arms sales ban in order to quell Chinese aggression, they risk losing leverage on human rights issues.
Those issues aside, Vietnam's military purchases will have little impact on the U.S. defense industrial base when paired with the fact that its budget leaves between $3 billion and $3.5 billion a year for extraneous defense purchases — meaning it has little purchasing power to expand its arsenal extensively, said Darling. The country also maintains a close relationship with Russia when it comes to buying weapons.
"While Gen. Martin Dempsey's recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City was a good indicator that full normalization of ties are on the horizon, how soon remains a question," said Darling. "Many in Congress continue to question Vietnam's record on human rights, but the same concerns in the legislative body did not prevent the previous administration from lifting an embargo on Indonesia. If seen as a valuable partner in countering the rise of piracy, arms trafficking or a strategic rival, exceptions will almost always be made."

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Policy, International

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