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Vietnam: President Obama Lifts Arms Embargo- Significance; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0074/2016

Courtesy: Thayer Consultancy Background Briefs, May 23-May 24 2016

Please give us your analysis of this news: President Barack Obama has announced the US is fully lifting its embargo on sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam.

Q. How do you assess the importance of this decision by Obama?

ANSWER: President Obama’s decision to lift the arms embargo on Vietnam represents one of the capstones of his rebalance to Asia in general and Vietnam in particular. Vietnam is one of Obama’s success stories. Vietnam signed on early to the TPP negotiations. Both presidents signed off on an Agreement on Comprehensive Partnership in 2013. Defence relations were taken to a new level in mid-2015 when Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter and Minister of National Defence General Phung Quang Thanh issued a Joint Vision Statement on defence cooperation. One paragraph held out the possibility of future defence trade and cooperation in defence technology. The total lifting of the arms ban does not mean that no restrictions will apply in future. Vietnam must comply with U.S. law and regulations, as noted in the Joint Vision Statement. The U.S. can also refuse requests for weapons platforms and system that are too sensitive or would be destabilizing in the region. Vietnam is not likely to try to procure such defence items. Vietnam’s repeated requests to remove the arms embargo date back several years. Vietnam was motivated to end what it viewed as political discrimination. This was a demand that Vietnamese conservatives pushed strongly. Now they have been placated. Vietnam is likely to proceed cautiously and gradually. Vietnam will focus on technical systems related to communications and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in the maritime domain. Cooperation between defence industries is now possible with development of new technologies and entering into coproduction. President Obama made his announcement at a press conference. We must wait for the final joint communique to see the details.

Q. Is it a very strong signal to China?

ANSWER: President Obama’s decision to lift the arms embargo on Vietnam is a strong signal to both Vietnam and China. But arms purchases from the U.S. will not alter the balance of naval power in the South China Sea in the near future. China will have to factor in to its policy that Vietnam and the U.S. are on an upward trajectory supported by a growing convergence of interest in the South China Sea. U.S. arms sales to Vietnam will assist Vietnam in improving its capacity of self-defence and therefore deterrence against China.

Q. How China will react?

ANSWER: Chinese media are likely to criticize the decision and put the blame on Obama. They will argue that the U.S. cannot buy Vietnam. Chinese officials will be more circumspect. After all Vietnam has acquired real lethal weapons from Russia without provoking official Chinese reaction.

Q: In light of the recent announcement by President Obama that he was lifting the arms embargo on Vietnam, could you give us an assessment on how this will affect the outlook for the Vietnam-US defense relationship, as well as the dynamics in the South China Sea (with regards to China, specifically) and the region as a whole?

ANSWER: President Obama’s announcement that the U.S. would lift all restrictions on the sale of arms to Vietnam shows that he is forward looking. Obama has overcome a persistent irritant in bilateral relations that will be a legacy for the next U.S. president to build on. Vietnam has long sought to removal of the arms ban and President Obama has responded positively. The ball is now in Vietnam’ court to identify its priorities and to familiarize itself with the complex set of laws and regulations governing arms sales. Even allies like Australia must go through this progress. If Vietnam engages with the U.S. in procuring defence technology it will build trust and lead to greater cooperation between defence industries. This goal was set out in the 2015 Joint Vision Statement on defence cooperation issued by Ministry of National Defense General Phung Quang Thanh and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Vietnam is likely to focus its initial requests on defence communications systems, coastal radar and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance system for maritime security. This will enable Vietnam to develop a real time picture of what is taking place in its waters. Vietnam will also be more interoperable with U.S. allies and strategic partners, such as Singapore, in developing a common operating picture in the maritime domain. This development will reduce China’s ability to act stealthily or without warning. In short, Vietnam will enhance its capability for self-defence and its ability to safeguard its sovereignty.

Q- Although the lifting of the US arms embargo on Vietnam was mentioned and pushed before the visit of President Obama to Vietnam, it was still an astounding announcement when first mentioned by President Dai Quang in his statement. Was it a surprise for you personally, did you expect it to come this soon?

ANSWER: In interviews I gave prior to President Obama’s announcement I said “I was inclined to believe Obama would lift the arms embargo.” This was a positive yet qualified assessment. I argued that President Obama was clearing away the legacies of the past so as to lay a road map for the future. Obama normalized relations with Cuba, negotiated a nuclear agreement with Iran and lifted more sanctions against Myanmar. I argued that relations with Vietnam were more advanced and that President Obama would lift the arms embargo. This was his decision to make but until he made it I still was not one hundred percent certain that he would.

Q- What do think are the real motivations and purposes behind this move?

ANSWER: President Obama wants to show case the success of his rebalance to Asia policy. Vietnam has been a success story. It joined the TPP negotiations early and agreed to the final text. Vietnam and the US reached an agreement on comprehensive partnership in 2013. President Obama stated in his joint press conference that he wanted to remove this vestige of the Cold War and to fully normalize relations and develop strong defence ties with Vietnam in the long-term.

Q- It might look like Vietnam is the winner, but according to you, who gains the most from this change of policy?

ANSWER: Both sides benefit because the lifting of the arms embargo opens up opportunities for cooperation. But we should recall President Obama’s caveat that the US would still apply strict requirements on arms sales related to Vietnam’s human rights. Vietnam has benefitted because what it saw as an act of political discrimination has now been ended. Vietnam is unlikely to make major purchases of “big ticket” defence equipment in the immediate future. Vietnam will explore trade in defence items and cooperation in defence technology leading to co-production. Both sides will benefit The US benefits because a major impediment to defence cooperation has been eliminated.

Q- What do you predict the reaction will be from China?

ANSWER: China has already issued an announcement that is measured in tone. It hopes the lifting of the arms embargo will be conducive to regional peace and stability. The Chinese popular media will take a harder line. China is not in a position to come down hard against Vietnam because that would harm China’s interests in developing its relations with Vietnam by reducing the space in which they can cooperate. China does not want to push Vietnam towards the United States.

Q- What should Vietnam do to make the best of this opportunity? Will it result in a shift in the balance of Russian and American weapons in Vietnamese army?

ANSWER: For the immediate future and beyond the lifting of the arms embargo will not result in a reduction of the Russian-Vietnamese defence relations. Vietnam’s technicians and military officers are trained in Russian technology and methods. Vietnam’s most modern equipment – Su-30s, Gepard-class frigates and advanced Kilo-class submarines are all Russian. If Vietnam mixed and matched Russian and US military equipment and technology it would create a logistics nightmare. Vietnam needs access to US defence technology that would assist in networking its systems and provide real time information on what is going on in Vietnam’s maritime domain. Vietnam is looking at a very specialized area of advanced communications technology, coastal radar and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technology to assist in maritime domain awareness. Vietnam should take advantage of the lifting of the arms embargo to explore fully the range of defence equipment and technology that the US will sell and move gradually to acquire this technology and integrate it in Vietnam armed forces.

Q: We request your assessment on what Vietnam would be interested in procuring from the US that it cannot get from Russia or any other country? Is it too late to lift an arms embargo when so much technology is now available from other countries at cheaper rates?

ANSWER: The lifting of the US arms embargo was more important politically than substantially. Vietnam has long made the arms embargo an issue in bilateral relations. Hanoi viewed it as political discrimination rooted in the Cold War. Now that the embargo has been lifted nothing with change substantially. As President Obama made clear at his joint press conference with his counterpart Tran Dai Quang, Vietnam will face the same restrictions that all other countries face when trying to procure US arms. And US policy linking arms sales to human rights will remain in place.

The lifting of the arms embargo is unlikely to lead to any “big ticket” orders for advanced multirole jet fighters, naval combatants or missiles. Vietnam does not have the defence budget for that. It is fully committed to integrating six advanced Kiloclass submarines into its fleet. All of Vietnam maintenance, repair and logistics network and work force are geared to work with Soviet/Russian technology and weapons systems.

The key to future US-Vietnam defence cooperation may be found in the 2015 Joint Vision Statement on defence cooperation. It will involve trade in defence items and cooperation in defence technology leading over time to co-production. Vietnam is likely to seek modern communications equipment, drones, coastal radar and ISR technologies related to maritime domain awareness.

Concerning the global arms market: if Vietnam acquired a PC3 Orion, that the US stripped of sensitive weapon systems, industry sources say Vietnam could go to Europe and purchase it there.

[Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: All background briefs are posted on (search for Thayer)]

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