Peter Brookes: Lifting Hanoi arms ban is shot at China

Peter Brookes

Peter Brookes

You know when someone tries to convince you of something, but no matter what they say it seems to fly directly in the face of logic like, “It’s not about money,” when everyone knows that it’s about money.

Political leaders certainly aren’t immune from trying to persuade you of something that seems quite unlikely, including President Obama, who while in Vietnam this week insisted that lifting the decades-old U.S. arms embargo on Hanoi wasn’t aimed at China.

Sure, it’s not.

There’s little question that ending the American weapons ban on Vietnam is all about China’s unprecedented defense buildup and its increasing assertiveness — and coerciveness — in the South China Sea, including the militarization of it.

But the decision to end the arms embargo isn’t without controversy.

First, we fought a long, bitter, painful war in the 1960s and early 1970s in Vietnam. Though the war ended for the United States (directly) in 1973, the result never sat well with many Americans. Some 58,000 U.S. troops lost their lives in Southeast Asia.

Then, there’s the issue of human rights in Vietnam, which despite some economic liberalization leaves much to be desired in terms of social and political liberties. Freedom House puts Vietnam in its “not free” category.

Many will question the president’s decision to let U.S. arms flow to a country that severely represses its people, a decision that tilts against his narrative about us not acting “contrary to our values.”

Naturally, Congress will weigh in on any arms sales to Vietnam since the House of Representatives and the Senate have a strong say in the approval of any weapons transfers abroad under existing legislation.

Actually, this is a further lifting of the arms embargo on Vietnam. In 2014, Washington eased the arms ban, allowing the sale of maritime security systems such as radars, aircraft and patrol boats.

But the cold, hard fact is that President Obama’s move is meant to remind Chinese President Xi Jinping that Beijing’s specious claims of sovereignty over a vast expanse of the South China Sea won’t go unanswered.

Indeed, the warming relationship between Washington and Hanoi — a normalization process formalized in 1995 during the Clinton administration — is a result of Vietnam’s concern about China, a relationship with some unpleasant history.

This doesn’t mean that an alliance with the United States against China is forthcoming. Trust me: While you may see U.S. warships making port visits to Cam Ranh Bay, none will be home-ported there anytime soon — if ever.

Old wounds run deep in the Vietnamese military, too.

Despite cultural affinities, geographic proximity and political ties between their communist parties, lifting the U.S. arms embargo gives Hanoi choices that it didn’t have before regarding Beijing, especially since the South China Sea runs the length of Vietnam’s coast.

The idea that ending the Vietnamese weapons ban isn’t about China is little more than a convenient diplomatic fiction. Getting Hanoi to help balance a boisterous, “bullying” Beijing makes good strategic sense considering Chinese actions of late.

That said, let’s not allow the China challenge to get in the way of pressing for more openness and freedom for the 90 million people of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

This article first appeared in the Boston Herald.  Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a Fort Valley resident. Follow him on Twitter @Brookes_Peter. Email: BrookesOutdoors@gmail.com.

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