Obama prepares to arm old foe

000313-D-2987S-062 Vietnamese Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Pham Van Tra (left) escorts Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen (right) as he inspects the troops during an armed forces honors ceremony at the Ministry of Defense Guest House in Hanoi, Vietnam, on March 13, 2000. Cohen is the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Vietnam since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel. (Released)

Vietnam’s once-seemingly invincible military was starved of investment for many years. Source: Wikimedia

US President Barack Obama has announced an end to the US embargo on sales of lethal arms to Vietnam, drawing a line under America’s ill-advised wars in the region and highlighting shared concern about Beijing’s growing maritime power.

The announcement during Obama’s first visit to Hanoi was welcomed as a new chapter in relations between two countries but, as ever, it will have been noticed in Beijing.

China’s Communist Party portrays the US as an imperial aggressor attempting to extend its reach to the South China Sea. Washington, however, claims it is only trying to uphold freedom of navigation and defend the sovereignty of Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular, and Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei to a lesser extent.

While China remains Vietnam’s biggest trading partner and its largest source of imports, trade with the US has risen 10-fold since 1995 to about US$45 billion with Vietnam becoming Asean’s biggest exporter to the US.

The visit is part of Obama’s wider efforts in his last year in office to resolve ongoing diplomatic disputes, similar to his rapprochement with Iran and Cuba. Frustrated by his own lack domestic power, Obama, like so many other US presidents before him, is looking to leave his mark in foreign policy. That said Obama is also in Vietnam to carry the flag for US trade.

Vietnam has long tried to bolster its naval capability. Its largest overseas arms contract was the US$2-billion purchase of six Russian kilo-class submarines, which are still arriving in instalments.

Vietnamese military spending more than doubled between 2004 and 2013 and it is now the world’s eighth largest importer of weaponry.

It has also looked to deepen military ties elsewhere, developing links with Spain, the Netherlands, Israel and others.

Obama, the third American president to visit Vietnam since diplomatic relations were restored in 1995, has made a strategic ‘rebalance’ towards Asia a centrepiece of his administration’s foreign policy with both nations fearing Beijing’s assertiveness and sovereignty claims to 80 per cent of the South China Sea. The stretch of water is thought to be choking with natural resources and the Chinese regard it as firmly within their sphere of influence, rather like the Americans refuse to accept non-American involvement in the Caribbean Sea.

The Communist parties in Hanoi and Beijing express ideological solidarity but the extension of remote rocky outcrops into islands with runways and harbours in the South China Sea has forced Vietnam to reassess the relationship.

Obama and Vietnam’s President Tran Dai Quang told a joint press conference this week that marine disputes should be resolved peacefully and not by whoever “throws their weight around” in a less-than cryptic reference to Beijing.

“The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations. It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalisation with Vietnam,” Obama told the media. “Hearts can change and peace is possible.”

Conservative factions, however, within Vietnam’s Communist Party still fret that Washington secretly harbours hopes of overthrowing it.

Equally, liberal critics in the US are angered that Obama’s arrival coincided both with a ludicrous parliamentary “election”, with a 96-per-cent turnout, and a crackdown on environmentalists who have demanded answers about why thousands of dead fish are washing up along Vietnamese beaches.

Human Rights Watch reacted angrily to Obama’s announcement, accusing him of squandering a critical lever the US might have used to push for political reform in the one-party state.

Phil Robertson, HRW’s Asia director, said: “In one fell swoop, President Obama has jettisoned what remained of US leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam – and basically gotten nothing for it.”

Obama did tell the media in Vietnam that he would continue to speak out for human rights.

Quang was until recently minister of public security, which activists accuse of harassing and arresting demonstrators or government critics.

Security analysts expect that Hanoi’s shopping list will include the latest in surveillance radar, intelligence and communications technology, allowing better coverage of the South China Sea as well as improved integration of its forces.

Drones, radar, coastal patrol boats and possibly P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft might well be ordered.

Carl Thayer, a scholar of the Vietnamese military at Australia’s Defence Force Academy, said the high price of US hardware would remain a factor for Hanoi, pushing it back towards Russia, its traditional supplier of missiles and aeroplanes. If nothing else, the lifting of the US embargo may provide Hanoi with leverage in future arms deals with those suppliers.

The concentration on the threat of an increasingly assertive China dominates media attention but it is easily forgotten that civilian cooperation between Vietnam and the USA is also on the rise. One of the first deals signed on Obama’s trip was an US$11.3 billion order for 100 Boeing aeroplanes by budget airline VietJet.

In Ho Chi Minh City, which is increasingly establishing a reputation as the latest tech hotspot, Obama will meet entrepreneurs and push the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The terms of the TPP oblige Hanoi to allow independent unions which could loosen the Communist monopoly on public life, meaning the next US president might have another means to call for a cleaner human-rights record despite losing the arms bargaining chip.