Go Ahead and Sell Arms to Vietnam

Vietnam already has Russian subs.

Photographer: Vietnam News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

Senator John McCain has given one good reason for lifting the U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam: China. A better-armed Vietnam, deploying U.S. weapons, would make a stronger partner in the American effort to counter Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea. That, however, is not the only -- or even the best -- reason to end the ban.

More than 40 years after the U.S. evacuated Saigon, and two decades since the former enemies restored diplomatic ties, the embargo is a relic. The U.S. has become Vietnam’s second-largest trading partner after China. Nike and Intel have set up huge operations there, and the U.S. is on track to become the country’s largest investor. Vietnam has agreed to hefty concessions in order to ensure passage of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. Lifting the remaining limits on lethal weapons sales would affirm the ongoing normalization in ties.

Vietnam has become one of the world’s most eager arms importers; from 2011 to 2015, its purchases -- primarily from Russia -- grew nearly 700 percent. Vietnamese leaders would prefer more advanced American equipment; they’re already talking to Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other big U.S. contractors. Those companies should be allowed to compete for the business.

It’s also true, unfortunately, that Vietnam’s progress toward improving its human-rights record since the U.S. resumed limited arms sales in 2014 has been disappointing. The country has ratified the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and some political prisoners have been released, but at least 45 prisoners of conscience remain in jail. Rather than arrest dissidents, authorities have found more thuggish ways to intimidate them and restrict their ability to assemble and to express themselves. The U.S. should certainly continue to press for more progress, especially in clarifying the vague laws that are used to detain bloggers and others.

Lifting the embargo would not remove all the leverage the U.S. has. Major arms purchases would still need to be approved; weapons that could be turned against domestic protesters could and should be excluded from consideration.

That said, in the long run, fundamental change cannot be imposed from outside. It makes more sense for the U.S. to strengthen and work with people in the regime who favor closer ties and a more open economy and society. Three-quarters of Vietnamese now view America positively, including almost 90 percent of young adults. (Fewer than one in five Vietnamese say the same about China.)

Using American equipment would make Vietnamese forces more interoperable with U.S. allies such as Japan and the Philippines, with which it’s mulling joint patrols in the South China Sea. It would expand the potential for exercises with the U.S. and possibly improve the chances that the U.S. Navy might regain access to the port at Cam Ranh Bay.

If not exactly pleased, China seems resigned to the prospect: It’s declared itself “happy to see Vietnam develop normal relations” with America. In any case, the embargo should be lifted not to challenge any perceived enemy, but to cement a friendship.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.