Arm Vietnam to Counter China

Let's make an arms deal.

Almost 40 years after their war, the U.S. and Vietnam have long since stopped being enemies. Trade between them has grown to more than $20 billion. Yet one major obstacle to a full rapprochement remains: the U.S. embargo on lethal weapons sales to its former adversary. This should be removed.

Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh will make this argument when he meets U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry today in Washington. Vietnamese leaders have long resented the weapons ban, which lumps Vietnam in with North Korea, Zimbabwe and other unfriendly states. And their desire to see the ban removed has grown more urgent since this summer's confrontation with China, after it parked a massive oil rig in a part of the South China Sea claimed by both countries. Vietnam is eager to buy P-3 Orion surveillance planes from the U.S. to patrol those disputed waters.

China's aggressiveness has changed the calculus in Washington, as well. The U.S. naturally worries about directly escalating tensions with China, but building up the capabilities of regional allies such as Japan and the Philippines is a way to constrain Chinese adventurism without involving the Seventh Fleet. In particular, selling radar, patrol boats, planes and the like helps other countries increase their "maritime domain awareness" -- which is needed to monitor China's efforts to seize various shoals and reefs. In recent weeks, the White House, the Pentagon and a growing number of lawmakers led by Senator John McCain have made positive noises about relaxing the ban.

The obstacle has been Vietnam's spotty human-rights record: The regime continues to limit freedom of expression, association and public assembly, and more than 100 people charged with political offenses languish in prison.

Vietnam has made some gestures toward improving its record, by registering more places of worship in minority areas and releasing some long-serving political prisoners. But the country has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and still has several vague laws on its books that allow for detaining dissidents on the flimsiest of excuses. The regime needs to clarify or set aside measures in its penal code such as Article 258, which has been used to prosecute bloggers for infringing on "the interests of the State."

Further changes will require a broader consensus within the regime. And by lifting the ban now, the U.S. might lose some leverage to push for reform down the road. On the other hand, ending the weapons-ban could strengthen the hands of those in Vietnam who favor closer ties with the West. Beyond arms sales -- which anyway won't be huge given Vietnam's lack of resources -- the U.S. should look to enhance military-to-military ties, increase the number of joint exercises and naval visits, and integrate Vietnamese forces into the larger effort to keep open the South China Sea.

Lifting the embargo won't suddenly transform Vietnam into an ally against China, which after all exports about $37 billion annually to its southern neighbor. But what's important is that it will make Vietnam and the U.S. better friends.

--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Mary Duenwald

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net