President Obama has announced that he will lift the embargo on lethal weapons to Vietnam. When asked for the reason behind lifting the embargo Obama denied it was aimed at China, claiming it was a product of normalization and improving relations between the two nations. The President has also opened the door to more defense cooperation, stating that America would offer security assistance as well as continuing military to military dialog and cooperation.
The U.S and Vietnam fought one of the longest and bloodiest wars in the post WWII era. After the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam under communist control, the U.S cut off diplomatic relations. While relations were reestablished in the 1995, restrictions still remained. The prohibition on selling lethal military equipment to Vietnam was one of those remaining issues.
The general tone of the event seem to indicate that the U.S-Vietnamese relationship is warming rapidly . Both president Quang and Obama took an optimistic tone during the conference. There was certainly an air that the U.S-Vietnam relationship was far from reaching it’s peak.
Obama’s statement the United States hopes “to improve their maritime security posture for a whole host of reasons,” Certainly, there was implication that some form of U.S aid would be forthcoming to help prepare Vietnamese forces.
Vietnam’s current forces
Much of Vietnam’s land forces are equipped with a mishmash of obsolete soviet equipment. Frontline tanks for example, consist mostly of older T-55 tanks and Chinese copies upgraded by Israeli firms. Compare this to China’s growing fleet of modern military hardware.
Vietnam’s air force is also aging and lacking in important capabilities. Right now, Vietnam has less than 50 modern multirole fighters, all variants of the Su-27 Flanker. Only a single maritime patrol air aircraft is in inventory. They have expressed an interest in buying new western jets to replace their 144 MiG-21s, as well as drones and surveillance planes.
With China building up it’s military to levels rivaling world powers, fighting them with their old equipment and downgraded versions of current hardware is probably not the best option for deterring the Chinese and defending Vietnamese claims in the South China Sea or elsewhere.
So, will Vietnam buy actually American weapons?
Vietnam’s military budget currently stands at $5 billion dollars with over 400,000 troops under arms. The Vietnamese military is a growing power in the region, Fueled by economic growth and security concerns about Chinese provocations in the South China Sea. The Vietnamese military budget has undergone a five fold increase in the last ten years without an increase in the percentage of GDP devoted to military expenditure.
Right now, 80 percent of current Vietnamese arms imports come from Russia, and, while Vietnam won’t abandon Russia, they may be looking to diversify and modernize their arsenal. America has already financed patrol boats and provided training for the Vietnamese coastguard. With the arms ban lifted and the economy continuing to grow, more arms deals are a definite possibility.
Even small purchases like the boats could help build ties between America and Vietnam. Ties really were the theme of the visit between Obama and Quang. While the U.S has been courting Vietnam for alliance or partnership in the region, Vietnam also has an interest in U.S support. Buying American weapons and making trade deals like the TPP will help move the country closer to the core of U.S interests rather than the periphery. With conflict with China looming, Vietnam needs all the diplomatic, economic and military support it can get.
The end of the arms ban is a sign that the wounds of Vietnam war are healing. The U.S and Vietnam are getting closer together both militarily and economically. Lifting the ban on arms may be the beginning of an alliance and perhaps one day we will be dropping bombs for Vietnam instead of on Vietnam.