Hanoi’s New Arms?

Dan de Luce and Keith Johnson at Foreign Policy report that the U.S. ban on arms sales to Vietnam is likely no more.

The White House appears poised to end a ban on arms sales to Vietnam in time for a landmark visit by President Barack Obama later this month, despite misgivings from some lawmakers and human rights advocates.

The step would carry crucial symbolism in the growing contest for influence between China and the United States in the Western Pacific and also for America’s relationship with Hanoi that has come full circle since the dark days of the Vietnam War.

In 2014, when restrictions were eased but not totally lifted, John Sifton at Human Rights Watch outlined their objections based on human rights concerns in Vietnam.

The U.S. government defends the policy change by claiming that maritime equipment cannot be used to stifle dissent. This argument misses the point. Of course, Hanoi won’t fire U.S.-made torpedoes at protesting crowds. Vietnam’s security forces don’t need complicated military equipment to quiet critics. When they arrest dissidents and bloggers, they just drive to protest sites, or people’s homes, and arrest them. Vietnam does not need to purchase firearms, batons, and tear gas from the United States at all — its security forces can purchase these inexpensive items in existing markets.

But the decision to start lethal arms sales undercuts the brave work of Vietnamese activists who expect the United States and other democracies to pressure the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam to end its systematic repression and engage in serious reform.

Vietnam has urged the U.S. not to take human rights violations into consideration when making decisions about lifting the ban on arms sales.

Speaking during a news conference after the meeting with (U.S. Defense Secretary Ash) Carter, (Defense Minister Phung Quang) Thanh said through an interpreter that the full removal of the weapons sales restrictions would be “in line with the interests of both countries. And I think we should not attach that decision to the human rights issue.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski left for Vietnam ahead of the President.

Tom Malinowski will urge Hanoi to “release political prisoners without condition and encourage further reforms that will help to make Vietnam’s laws consistent with its international human rights obligations,” the State Department said in a statement released Friday.

Ankit Panda at The Diplomat hypothesized in 2014 what might happen when the U.S. eventually lifts the arms ban fully.

If and when the U.S. decides to lift the arms embargo, the consequences will likely not be far-reaching in the region. It will usher a new era of deeper bilateral relations between Washington and an old foe, but will not critically alter the maritime security dilemma or balance of power that are shaping current security dynamics in the South China Sea. Hanoi won’t immediately be emboldened vis-a-vis Beijing, nor will it change its behavior to suit U.S. expectations (on human rights, for example).

How this will actually play out between the U.S., Vietnam and China, we’ll have to wait to see.

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