China: the target of US’s lifting of arms sales ban on Vietnam?

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Since US President Barack Obama’s announcement of the US’s decision to lift the ban on arms sale on Vietnam during his historic visit to Hanoi in late May, China’s response has been relatively muted – even if it has been widely agreed that only China and the South China Sea conflict can be the target of such a momentous move.

But that is just a prelude to what would likely be the most rambunctious session of the 15th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where world powers convene to discuss security issues in Asia. Organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank, it is to be attended by at least 20 defence ministers led by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter,

Already, the tone – in particular the combativeness between the US and China at the previous few Shangri La Dialogues – has been ratcheting up. The event is after all a dialogue, aimed at upholding channels of peaceable communication on intractable issues. At least one columnist has warned of the danger of increasing US-China confrontation.

The lifting of the arms sales embargo: what does it really mean?

It is hardly a sudden move in US defence policy to extend the olive branch to Vietnam. For some time, the Obama administration has been helping Vietnam build up its maritime security capabilities. Through the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing and law enforcement capacity building programmes, the US has provided more than $45.7 million to Vietnam since 2014.

President Obama appeared to dismiss suggestions that the lifting of the arms sales embargo on Vietnam was aimed at countering China’s growing military influence in the region. But his memorable remark in Hanoi that “big nations should not bully smaller ones” could not have possibly referred to any other country.

US officials have sought to depict the lifting the arms sales embargo as part of a larger strategy to help Vietnam defend itself against an increasing threat from China in the South China Sea. Some analysts have even gone as far as to speculate that Vietnam could grant the US access to the deepwater port at Cam Ranh Bay.

This would effectively grant US naval power a base on both the western and eastern ends of the South China Sea.

But there was ultimately no such announcements on the possible use of Cam Ranh Bay by the US, during Obama’s Hanoi visit. Neither was there a hint that new military contracts between the US and Vietnam was on the cards.

Obama, however did announce new commercial agreements worth more than $16 billion, primarily involving Boeing and Pratt & Whitney selling aircraft and engines to VietJet Air, a privately owned low-cost Vietnamese airline.

China’s responses to a love-hate relationship

In the aftermath of Obama’s Hanoi visit and his announcement of the lifting of the arms sales embargo, the People’s Daily-owned Global Times, the best barometer of the Chinese leadership’s unvarnished sentiments, ran an editorial that accused President Obama of “exacerbating the strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing.”

The official response was far more contained. Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said in her daily press conference that “as a neighbor to Vietnam, China is happy to see Vietnam develop normal relations with all countries including the U.S.” However, Hua added that China hopes the latest development would be “conducive to regional peace, stability and development.”

But as long time watchers of China-Vietnam relations know, the reality is quite much more complex. There has long been a semblance of a love-hate relationship between Beijing and Hanoi, where the fraternity between the ruling Communist parties juxtaposes with conflicting geopolitical considerations. Given the differentials in size between the two countries, there is naturally the sense that Vietnam is still the little brother in the relationship.

Beijing is deeply concerned about the intentions of Vietnam. But within the Vietnamese leadership too, there are camps more favourable to Beijing and others less so – as can be witnessed in the leadership contest of Vietnam’s Communist party earlier this year.

Just days before Obama’s visit and his announcement, China’s ambassador to Vietnam, Hong Xiaoyong, met with Vietnam’s defence minister, Ngo Xuan Lich, in Hanoi, with both of them pledging to strengthen military ties. In retrospect, this seems like Beijing’s way of preempting any US advances upon Vietnam.

This is also a sensitive time for China, given the impending ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea dispute brought on by the Philippines. It was expected in May, but that a delay seems to have caught observers somewhat by surprise.

Vietnam in TPP – but US Congress unlikely to ratify it anytime soon

President’s Obama visit to Hanoi was of course not all about the lifting of the arms embargo, major as that was. Vietnam is part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which for the first time puts it together with the US in the same trade agreement. This is a major development for a country that is otherwise still formally Communist.

Except that President Obama candidly admitted that the TPP that has very little chance of the US Congress ratifying it before November’s US presidential election, to become law. All three remaining presidential candidates – Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, oppose the TPP.