On May 23 2016, President Barack Obama kicked off a weeklong visit to Asia by visiting Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. While there, he negotiated a commercial deal between Vietnam and aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Pratt & Whitney that is worth $16 billion. Obama also made the historic decision to lift a long-standing arms embargo on the country.
Human rights groups argue that keeping Vietnam’s arms embargo allows the United States to send a message to the country about protecting civil liberties. The Communist Party of Vietnam maintains a political monopoly over the government and is known to restrict basic freedoms such as freedom of speech, religion, and press. However, little has changed in Vietnam since the United States imposed the arms embargo in 1984, and it is unlikely that extending the ban will do anything to improve its human rights record.
Lifting the ban is the smarter choice because it allows the United States to reap more tangible benefits. Expanding the United States’ arms trade strengthens its strategic, economic, and military ties to Vietnam. It is also a gesture of goodwill that signals to the world that they are partners. Building a partnership with Vietnam is ideal because it is already very pro- American. A 2015 Pew Survey states that 78% of Vietnamese see the United States favorably. Moreover, the United States is one of Vietnam’s largest trading partners. According to a United States Census Bureau report, the United States imported $16.7 million in goods to Vietnam in 2016.
Vietnam has been asking for lethal weapons since 2014, when China placed an oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands. It is the world’s eighth largest arms importer, with arms imports rising 699% from 2011 to 2015. As a result, United States defense contractors will benefit from the huge demand for weapons in Vietnam.
A bonus of partnering with Vietnam is that it helps the United States check China’s growing power. Although the United States is ahead of other countries in terms of GDP and military power, China is in second place and is quickly catching up. It is a dominant Asian-Pacific region that is a clear threat to the United States. If the United States slows down, China is poised to gain more world influence. Despite Obama’s claims that “the decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations,” any actions the United States takes in Asia most certainly include China as a factor.
Vietnam dominated Southeast Asia from the 1970s to the 2000s and competes with China for influence in the region. Both the United States and Vietnam also share a common concern with China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea. They criticize China for attempting to militarizing the South China Sea with its artificial island-building spree and bullying of its smaller neighbors. The United States needs a partner in Asia that it can work with to help maintain international rules, and Vietnam fulfills that role.
One final advantage that the United States potentially gains from opening up its weapons market to Vietnam is full access to Cam Ranh Bay, a strategic port located in the South China Sea. Its deep waters can support the United States’ largest warships and allow them to more easily patrol the waters China claims as its exclusive economic zone. The United States can consequently increase its presence in Asia and keep closer tabs on China’s activities.