May 19, 2016
President Barack Obama will make his first official visit to Vietnam this coming weekend. One big issue on his agenda is deciding whether to remove the U.S. ban on arms sales to the country, which began at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
This will follow a series of close political, economic, and military ties formed between the U.S. and Vietnam in recent years. Vietnam’s push for arms sales has been especially pressing in recent months due to its conflict with China in the South China Sea. China has reportedly threatened Vietnam’s fishing boats and embarked on a massive land reclamation program.
While Obama is expected to make a decision within the year, Vietnam has not provided a precise list of weapons. Experts expect Hanoi to request a mix of warships, missiles, and communications equipment. Examples include Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon, and Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Hercules. Although Obama can lift parts of the embargo without congressional approval, legislators would need to approve individual sales.
The potential arms lift has received mixed responses. Many believe it would symbolize the end of a bygone era whose negative vestiges have long overstayed their welcome. “Vietnam believes this element of barrier of the past should be removed to reflect our full normalization of relations started two decades ago, and the current level of our comprehensive partnership,” says Pham QuangVinh, Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States.
Senator John McCain is also a supporter. “They sunk a Vietnamese vessel a couple years ago. There is a history, a 2,000-year history, of occupation of Vietnam.” The senator and former prisoner of war believes that China’s recent behavior warrants for the U.S. to provide assistance.
Some human rights groups however, are not so adamant on the change. They believe it would remove the only leverage the U.S. has in persuading Vietnam to improve its human rights practices.
The Senate Arms Services Committee has settled for a compromise that will lift the ban but also enact a review process for Vietnam’s progress in human rights.