While visiting Vietnam, President Obama announced the lifting of a ban on the sale of military equipment, which has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War.
“The United States is fully lifting the ban on sale of military equipment to Vietnam that’s been in place for some 50 years,” President Obama said at a Hanoi press conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, as quoted by NBC News. “Sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those on human rights, but this change ensures Vietnam has access to equipment it needs to defend itself.”
Although the President insists the ban was lifted to help normalize relations with Vietnam, it is almost universally seen as a slap at China, which is the adversary Vietnam would most likely need to defend itself from at the moment.
“Like everyone else, I don’t want any conflict. But if the U.S. can help us, that would be good. It’s a big leap for both countries. I want the bond to be strengthened even more,” Hanoi motorbike taxi driver Nguyen Dinh Toan told USA Today.
China, which has leapt to criticize every American response to its territorial assertions in the South China Sea, seemed fairly relaxed about the end of the ban on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam.
“The arms embargo is a product of the Cold War and should never have existed,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying. “We welcome normal relations between Vietnam and the United States.”
However, the New York Times says Beijing has “deep concerns about the intentions of Vietnam” beneath its polite responses. Among these concerns is Vietnam’s robust support for United Nations arbitration of competing South China Sea claims from China and the Philippines.
Also, the Times cites analysts who believe the U.S. will ask for access to the deep water port at Cam Ranh Bay as part of its new relationship with Vietnam.
In addition to the end of the arms embargo, Obama announced commercial deals between U.S. companies and Vietnam worth over $16 billion, “including one in which Boeing will sell 100 aircraft and Pratt & Whitney will sell 135 advanced aircraft engines to VietJet, a privately owned low-cost airline,” per the NYT.
Obama also predicted that Vietnam would benefit greatly from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal in his Hanoi remarks, even though the deal is unlikely to pass the current Congress, and is opposed by all of the remaining 2016 presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat alike.
One of the conditions for improved relations between the U.S. and Vietnam was progress on human rights by Vietnam. Human rights advocates seem largely unsatisfied that enough progress has been made, citing the continued detention of political prisoners and police beatings of protesters.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia policy director, John Sifton, bluntly accused Obama of giving Vietnam “a reward that they don’t deserve.”
Politico notes that Vietnam held National Assembly elections with a highly suspicious reported turnout of 98.77 percent just hours before President Obama arrived.
“Neither the Americans or the Vietnamese spent any time pretending the change had anything to do with actual democratic reform. Obama didn’t make a show of calling for it. President Tran Dai Quang didn’t make a show of pretending he was for it. They both knew it would have been a joke,” Politico writes.