Four decades after the end of a failed U.S. war in Vietnam, President Barack Obama has halted an arms embargo that was one of the conflict’s last remnants. An assertive China is watching.

Vietnam
U.S. President Barack Obama during a town hall meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 25 May 2016. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

By Jim Wolf

Forty-one years after the end of a failed U.S. war in Vietnam, President Barack Obama has halted an arms embargo that was one of the conflict’s last remnants.

The move on May 23 underscores growing ties between the United States and Communist-ruled Vietnam, one of several countries in Asia involved in simmering maritime disputes with a rising China.

China and the United States have traded accusations of militarizing the South China Sea as Beijing presses large-scale land reclamation and construction on disputed islets, reefs and shoals. Washington has increased naval maneuvers to counter what it deems excessive maritime claims by China and others.

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in in the South China Sea, 21 May 2016 (REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters)
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in in the South China Sea, 21 May 2016 (REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters)

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims. At stake among other things are fishing grounds, the potential exploitation of suspected offshore crude oil and natural gas, and the strategic control of key shipping lanes.

Making his first visit to Vietnam as president, Obama said his decision to end curbs on sales of lethal weapons and related services to Hanoi removes a “lingering vestige of the Cold War.”

At the same time, it marks a new twist in the high-stakes drama in the South China Sea, where China is strong and the other claimants relatively week. Vietnam is important because it borders China, has a big population of nearly 100 million and has a long coast on the sea, which includes some of the world’s busiest trading routes.

Hanoi for years had sought a complete end to the arms embargo.

Despite brethren Communist rulers, China and Vietnam are historical antagonists. China launched a 29-day incursion into Vietnam in February 1979, less than two months after Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, ousting the pro-Beijing Khmer Rouge government of Pol Pot and overrunning the country.

In 2014, strains between Vietnam and China ignited after the sinking of at least one Vietnamese fishing boat near a Chinese oil rig in disputed waters off Vietnam’s coast. Anti-Chinese riots took place in Vietnam.

Speaking in Hanoi, Obama said the end of the arms embargo was not related to U.S. policy towards China.

“It is based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalization with Vietnam,” he said on a trip that also took him to Japan, long an anchor of the U.S. security panoply in Asia and the Pacific.

Hanoi for years had sought a complete end to the arms embargo, delayed in recent years by U.S. concerns over human-rights conditions in Vietnam.

U.S.-Vietnamese relations have improved steadily.

Differences over rights notwithstanding, the former foes in Hanoi and Washington are cementing a strategic partnership that few could have envisioned after their war that lasted from 1955 to 1975.

At the end of the war, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon, capital of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government. By then, the war had spilled over into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. More than one million Vietnamese died in the conflict. The United States lost more than 58,000 military personnel.

Relations have improved steadily since normalization took place 21 years ago. Obama’s well-received visit last week may fuel a surge of goodwill that would further align the two countries amid shared concerns about China’s island-building and fortification moves in the sea.

U.S. arms makers have been hoping to sell Vietnam maritime and naval patrol aircraft, coastal radar stations and maritime surveillance and communication technology among other high-tech exports. Arms sales will be considered by Washington on a case-by-case basis, as always, “but this change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself,” Obama said after talks with President Tran Dai Quang.

U.S.-Chinese differences over American military patrols.

China responded calmly.

“As a neighbor to Vietnam, China is happy to see Vietnam develop normal relations with all countries including the U.S.,” a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said. “And we hope this would be conducive to regional peace, stability and development.”

Less than two weeks before Obama’s arms announcement, China scrambled fighter jets in response to a U.S. navy ship’s sailing close to the disputed Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea, a patrol Beijing denounced as a threat to peace and an illegal entry into Chinese waters.

China’s Defense Ministry said two fighter jets were sent aloft and three warships shadowed the U.S. ship, telling it to leave.

Washington says its patrols are meant to assert “innocent passage” rights of all nations to cross the high seas freely and to block any unlawful extension of boundaries or territorial claims.


Jim Wolf
Jim Wolf

Jim Wolf was a correspondent for AP-Dow Jones, AFP, Jane’s Defence Weekly and Reuters for nearly 40 years, based in New York, Paris, Bangkok and Washington. He was Reuters’s defense technology correspondent from 2001 to 2013. Wolf is now teaching at the Shanghai International Studies University.

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