Human rights advocates criticized President Barack Obama’s decision to lift the U.S. arms embargo of Vietnam, saying the decision announced on Monday does little to curb Hanoi’s abuses and gives away Washington’s leverage with that communist government in the future.
“In one fell swoop, President [Barack] Obama has jettisoned what remained of US leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam, and basically gotten nothing for it,” said Human Rights Watch Asia Director Phil Robertson. “President Obama just gave Vietnam a reward that they don't deserve."
On his first state visit to Vietnam, Obama attempted to fend off those criticisms, saying there are strings attached to any arms sales to Hanoi that will give Washington the power it needs to move Vietnam closer to protecting human rights.
“Sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those related to human rights, but this change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself," Obama said.
While he insisted that the U.S. influence on human rights will not wane, he admitted that Vietnam, a one-party communist state since 1975, has only made “modest progress” on those issues.
“We will continue to speak out on behalf of human rights that we believe are universal, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, and that includes the right of citizens, through civil society, to organize and help improve their communities and their country.
Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang defended Vietnam’s record, saying “the consistent position and viewpoint of the Vietnamese state and government is to protect and promote human rights.”
“Those achievements have been highly recognized and officiated by the international community,” he added. “One of the examples, very good examples to showcase Vietnam's progress, is that Vietnam has been elected as a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council in 2016.”
Critics have noted that Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia also sit on that U.N. council, and that Vietnam has been cracking down hard on bloggers and environmental protestors who have demonstrated over a major kill-off of fish off the country’s central coast.
But Duy Hoang, the U.S.-based spokesman for Viet Tan, an unsanctioned pro-democracy party with members inside Vietnam and abroad, said the arms deal should have included a human rights quid-pro-quo.
“More than any weapons system, respect for human rights and democratic governance would bolster Vietnam's security by harnessing the strength of the nation,” he said. “Until Hanoi makes clear progress on human rights, including respecting the right of Vietnamese to peacefully assemble, the U.S. should not sell Vietnam any military gear that could be used against the population.”
While the arms deal may lack the human rights component wished for by advocates, Obama appeared to have faith that the deepening military, economic and trade ties will turn the tide in favor of increased protection for human rights.
“Over time, what we've seen is a progressive deepening and broadening of the relationship,” Obama said. “And what became apparent to me and my administration at this point was, is that given all the work we do together across the spectrum of economic, trade, security and humanitarian efforts, that it was appropriate for us not to have a blanket across-the-board [weapons] ban.”
The Trans-Pacific Partnership
Obama’s “spectrum” includes the 12-nation trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the cornerstone in Obama’s “pivot to Asia” in which the U.S. rebalances its interests from Europe and the Middle East toward East Asia. Obama said the TPP will help bring reforms to Vietnam.
“If you're signing up for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, you are making commitments that are enforceable to raise labor standards, to ensure that workers have a voice to attend to environmental problems,” Obama said. “And so this gives us the ability to engage with a country like Vietnam and work with them on all those fronts—the precise things that people, in the past, have been concerned about when it comes to trading with other countries.”
It was a point taken up by Quang.
“I am glad to add that Vietnam, together with other TPP countries, has been making efforts to narrow differences, to promote cooperation in the spirit of mutual understanding and mutual respect,” he said. “And we try to reduce differences in a spirit of constructiveness and understanding, and paying attention to one another’s legitimate interests.”
While Obama and Quang want the TPP, it’s unclear if the pact can gain approval in the U.S. as Congress has refused to deal with it and all of the presidential candidates have expressed opposition to it.
“I remain confident we're going to get it done, and the reason I'm confident is because it's the right thing to do,” Obama said. “It's good for the country. It's good for America. It's good for the region. It's good for the world.”
South China Sea
While Obama and Quang touted the nations’ new cooperation, Obama waded even more deeply into the choppy political waters that surround Vietnam.
The decision to end the embargo comes as Vietnam, the U.S. and other nations with an interest in the South China Sea have watched as Beijing has built up and fortified islands in the region that allow China to project its power and could serve as military bases.
Obama was careful to paint the decision as a way to put an end to the last vestiges of the Vietnam War, saying the decision “was not based on China or any other considerations.”
“It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving toward normalization with Vietnam,” he said.
Obama may have wanted to take China out of the equation, but tighter military and economic ties between the U.S. and Vietnam are likely to be read by Beijing as an attempt by Washington to roil the status quo.
Obama’s trip to Vietnam is part of an effort by both countries to bolster Vietnam in its relationship with China, which is its largest trading partner and an ideological ally.
That close relationship has been strained by Beijing’s South China Sea claims. China claims most of the South China Sea with its mineral wealth, rich fishing grounds and busy sea lanes.
Freedom of navigation
While China’s position and its actions have angered Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations that also have claims in the area, the U.S. has remained neutral about the territorial claims, saying Washington wants to ensure freedom of navigation in those areas.
Hanoi has repeatedly asked Washington to sell it American lethal weapons since China moved an oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands in 2014. While Washington eased the embargo two years ago, Obama’s decision opens the door to lethal weaponry.
“It is important for us to maintain the freedom of navigation and the governance of international norms, and rules and law that have helped to create prosperity and promoted commerce and peace and security in this region,” Obama said.
“Although the United States doesn’t support any particular claim, we are supportive of the notion that these issues should be resolved peacefully, diplomatically, in accordance with international rules and norms, and not based on who’s the bigger party and can throw their weight around a little bit more,” he added.
The news barely caused a ripple in Beijing on Monday.
“As a neighbor to Vietnam, China is happy to see Vietnam develop normal relations with all countries including the U.S.,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said during her regular press conference “And we hope this would be conducive to regional peace, stability and development.”
That doesn’t mean Xi Jinping’s government is happy with the move.
The U.S. was called a “habitual wave-maker” in the region that “has shown no restraint in meddling” in a May 22 commentary in the Beijing-controlled Xinhuanet.