- Obama speaks at press conference as five-day Asia tour starts
- Vietnam-China ties increasingly strained over sea claims
President Barack Obama said the U.S. is lifting a decades-old ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam as part of deeper engagement between the two countries that will eliminate one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.
More than 40 years after the end of a bitter war, Obama said the U.S. and Vietnam are broadening their relationship as a central component of a shift of American policy to the Asia-Pacific region. The decision will allow Vietnam to modernize its Soviet-era weaponry as it faces tensions with China over a maritime dispute.
“This change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment that it needs to defend itself,” Obama said Monday in Hanoi at a joint press conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. “It also underscores the commitment of the United States to fully normalize the relationship with Vietnam, including strong defense ties.”
The warming U.S.-Vietnam relationship is partly being driven by mutual concern over China, particularly Beijing’s increasing aggressiveness in asserting claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. China’s growing military and economic clout in the region is increasing its leverage with Southeast Asian nations, with the U.S. trying to counter those gains by improving defense ties in the region.
The U.S. has provided almost $46 million since 2014 to Vietnam’s efforts to strengthen its maritime security capabilities, according to the White House. New sales are likely to be modest, at least initially, to help Vietnam modernize its coastal defenses. Bilateral trade tripled in less than 10 years to almost $46 billion in 2015, which is still less than half the value of Chinese-Vietnamese trade.
“It is welcome that Vietnam improves its ties with any other country including the United States,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency wrote in a commentary Sunday. “However, such rapprochement should not be used by the United States as a tool to threaten or even damage the strategic interests of a third country.”
China hopes “the lifting of the arms embargo can help maintain the peace and stability of the region,” Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing Monday in Beijing, the Associated Press reported.
South China Sea
While Obama said Monday that the lifting of the arms ban wasn’t meant as a counterweight to China, he indirectly criticized the country for its actions in the South China Sea, where the U.S. has sent warships to sail near Chinese outposts to challenge the country’s claims.
“The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows,” Obama said, one day after Air Force One’s flight path took it over the South China Sea before it landed in Hanoi.
Vietnam and China have a long history of tensions. The countries fought a brief border war in 1979 and relations ruptured in the summer of 2014 after a Chinese oil rig was placed off Vietnam’s coast near the disputed Paracel islands. During the standoff, Chinese vessels rammed dozens of Vietnamese fishing boats, fueling deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.
The U.S. is already providing Vietnam with six patrol boats, part of an $18 million military aid package. Most likely topping Vietnam’s weapons wish list would be advanced surveillance systems to replace Soviet-era equipment considered obsolete, said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“You can forget about detecting smaller ships the Chinese will be deploying in that area,” Koh said. “If you don’t know where to point your weapons, it doesn’t matter what kind of sophisticated kinetic weapons you have.”
Vietnam is likely to seek aircraft such as Lockheed Martin Corp.’s P-3 Orion surveillance plane and vessels to patrol coastal waters as well as radar systems, according to an analysis by IHS Jane’s. Sales may be supported by U.S. assistance with financing, the analysis said. Jane’s estimated Vietnam’s total budget to buy military equipment at about $1.6 billion.
Obama said that future weapons sales to Vietnam would be completed on a case-by-case basis, with U.S. officials continuing to review Vietnam’s human rights records. Vietnam had made “modest progress” on human rights, but still needs to work to protect freedom of speech and other rights, he said. More than 100 dissidents remain locked up in Vietnamese jails, according to Human Rights Watch.
“President Obama has jettisoned what remained of U.S. leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam –- and basically gotten nothing for it,” Phil Robertson, Asia director of the group said in an e-mailed statement.
Echoing that theme, Representative Ed Royce, the California Republican who heads the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an e-mailed statement that “the Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ should be about security ties, but also standing up for brave Vietnamese believers in democracy when they are under assault in Vietnam.”
Quang, for his part, said his country had achieved “remarkable progress” on human rights.
Another key part of Obama’s pivot to Asia is the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, of which Vietnam is a part. Approval of the deal has been hung up in the U.S. Congress and is facing opposition from the candidates running to replace Obama in the White House, including his former secretary of state, Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Obama said he was confident that the accord would be completed even though it’s an election year in the U.S. “Every trade deal is painful because folks are always seeing if they can get an even better deal,” he said.
“As for Vietnam, TPP is a one step forward in implementation of the country’s deep and comprehensive international integration policy, which aims at promoting the national economic growth of Vietnam,” Quang said.
In conjunction with Obama’s visit to Vietnam, Boeing Co. signed an order for 100 jets from VietJet Aviation Joint Stock Co. valued at $11.3 billion. Delivery of the Boeing 737 Max 200 planes will run for four years beginning in 2019 and will help the carrier expand its fleet to 200 by the end of 2023, the company said in a statement. Separately, General Electric announced an agreement to build 1,000 megawatts of wind-power plants in the country by 2025.