Washington Needs a Plan for Lifting Its Weapons Sales Ban on Vietnam

The warming ties between Washington and Hanoi in recent years have prompted the questions whether and when the United States should remove its ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam. The two countries have developed what could be called a common strategic foundation, and relations between the two militaries have become increasingly cooperative in that context. But the United States maintains the ban due to concerns about the human rights situation in Vietnam, and in Hanoi some members of the ruling Communist Party Politburo worry about provoking China by enhancing military ties with the United States. Despite each country’s concerns, however, their interests make it clear that it is time to take another look at the issue.

Vietnamese defense officials would like the ban relaxed and eventually lifted. In recent years they have raised the issue in high-level meetings with their U.S. counterparts. Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta was reportedly presented with a “wish list” by the Vietnamese during his historic visit to the country in 2012, when he was invited to tour Cam Ranh Bay, a major U.S. naval and air base during the Vietnam War. From the Vietnamese perspective, bilateral defense ties cannot be considered fully normalized as long as the ban remains in place. But Washington has long reiterated that removal of the ban cannot happen until Hanoi significantly improves its human rights record.

The debate has shifted over the past year, partly as a result of upgraded overall ties through the establishment of the U.S.-Vietnam comprehensive partnership in July 2013 and partly due to progress on the human rights front in Vietnam.

The issue gained a higher profile in June, when Ted Osius, a veteran diplomat and nominee to be the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that continuing human rights improvements on Hanoi’s part “may mean it's time to begin exploring the possibility of lifting the ban.” Lifting the ban would carry significant implications for both the U.S.-Vietnam defense and bilateral relationship and the U.S. strategic position in the region.

In fact, next year could offer a good target for relaxing the anachronistic ban as the two countries celebrate the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations.

Vietnam is an increasingly important U.S. partner in the region, yet the relationship cannot reach its full potential unless it is built on mutual trust. For Vietnamese officials, retaining the ban while military-to-military ties are expanding implies a lack of trust from the U.S. side and goes against the spirit of the comprehensive partnership. In Hanoi’s view, its military has been a constructive actor for regional peace and stability since the early 1990s—after Vietnam withdrew its troops from Cambodia—and has not perpetrated human rights violations like some of its counterparts in the region that are subject to the same ban.

Against the backdrop of growing Chinese assertiveness and rising maritime tensions in the South China Sea, the U.S. and Vietnamese governments have been working more closely to help Vietnam bolster its maritime domain awareness and patrol capabilities. The Vietnamese government is acutely aware of the need to upgrade its military capability by cooperating closely with the United States and other able foreign partners. And for the United States, this is in line with its broader policy of strengthening the defense posture of Southeast Asian states and maintaining peace, stability, and the freedom of navigation in the region.

The two countries have also found common interests in strengthening ASEAN and its defense institutions, especially the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting Plus—which includes the defense ministers of the ten ASEAN states and their eight major dialogue partners—and the multilateral exercises under its aegis.

Washington has long been unenthusiastic about lifting the weapons sales ban because officials thought Vietnam wanted this merely as a “good housekeeping seal of approval” and was not really interested in buying military equipment from the United States. In recent months, though, Hanoi has indicated it is interested, for starters, in acquiring U.S.-made radar and surveillance equipment. It announced in May it would participate in the U.S.-backed Proliferation Security Initiative, a decision that potentially opens the door for the two countries to conduct joint maritime surveillance in the future.

The Vietnam Coast Guard is due to receive five to six new patrol vessels each year from the United States for the next several years. Vietnam will possibly receive a number of used U.S. Coast Guard cutters in addition to an $18 million assistance package announced by Secretary of State John Kerry when he visited Vietnam in late 2013. U.S. ally Japan is also supporting the strengthening of Vietnamese maritime security and domain awareness, and announced last week it will provide Vietnam with six ships.

In the long run, a successful defense partnership with Vietnam’s coast guard will not only affirm the U.S. security role on the eastern flank of the South China Sea—where a recent two-month-long standoff between China and Vietnam took place after Beijing deployed a massive oil rig in disputed waters—but will also go a long way toward proving that the United States remains the security partner of choice for non-treaty ally countries in the Asia Pacific.

Nonetheless, many in the U.S. government, particularly in Congress, are concerned that by lifting the arms sales ban, Washington risks losing its leverage with Hanoi on human rights. Some say that doing so would require tremendous political capital on the part of the Barack Obama administration, which has also been trying to garner support in Congress for Vietnam’s participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement currently being negotiated.

Yet, as Osius pointed out, the United States now has an unprecedented opportunity to press Vietnam for significant human rights improvements, especially because Vietnamese leaders are determined, perhaps more so than at any time in the past 15 years, to steer their country toward another round of economic reforms and greater strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China, on whom Vietnam has long depended ideologically and economically.

It is critical that U.S. officials start by providing Vietnam with a clear plan that explicitly defines the criteria that Washington, and especially Congress, expect Hanoi to meet in the near to medium term before the United States will relax, and eventually remove, the ban against Vietnam.

Those criteria should include, first and foremost, measurable actions by Vietnamese authorities to address concerns in the areas of freedom of expression and the treatment of bloggers, peaceful activists, and dissidents; freedom of religion; ethnic minority rights; and labor rights.

 In addition, Vietnam should honor its commitment to deepen bilateral defense cooperation with the United States, particularly in the areas of maritime security, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and peacekeeping, as laid out in the two countries’ 2011 Memorandum of Understanding on Advancing Bilateral Defense Cooperation.

While Hanoi recognizes the value and added leverage that working more closely with Washington offers, U.S. officials and diplomats often still receive a guarded response from their Vietnamese counterparts when they suggest new initiatives that would deepen bilateral security cooperation. This is due to Hanoi’s desire to remain independent in its foreign policy, mainly as a result of the country’s long history of entanglement in great power competition. The United States should respect Vietnam’s concerns in this area, but should point out that closer cooperation with Washington need not tie Hanoi’s hands in engaging other security partners.

The United States should demand that Vietnam be clear and unambiguous in its commitment to work together more closely. For instance, the United States should spell out that in return for lifting the ban on lethal weapons sales and/or offering greater technical support, it expects Vietnam to allow U.S. military ships to make more frequent stops and visits, including at the strategic deep-sea port at Cam Ranh Bay, and to commit to expanding the scope of bilateral military exchanges during the annual U.S.-Vietnam naval engagement activity.

Maintaining the U.S. ban on lethal weapons sales for too long could limit the depth of bilateral U.S.-Vietnam security cooperation, leaving Vietnam exposed and the United States at a disadvantage compared to others in areas such as military engineering and technology transfer with an increasingly important country in the region.

U.S. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will visit Vietnam in mid-August, followed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel most likely in November. Their visits will provide an ideal opportunity for U.S. officials to start talking with their Vietnamese counterparts about what elements Washington would like to see in a roadmap before taking steps to lift the lethal weapons ban on Vietnam.

This Commentary originally appeared in the August 7, 2014, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)

Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Phuong Nguyen is research associate with the Sumitro Chair.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Murray Hiebert
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program

Phuong Nguyen