The United States will finally let Vietnam enjoy the fruits of its military-industrial complex. On Monday in Hanoi, President Obama announced the end of America’s arms embargo against the communist nation, decrying the weapons ban as “a lingering vestige of the Cold War.”
“Just a generation ago, we were adversaries and now we are friends,” Obama said at a news conference with Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang.
The embargo was partially lifted in 2014, but the administration had previously suggested that a full repeal would require Vietnam to significantly improve its record on human rights. In the last two years, the Vietnamese government has continued to jail political prisoners and suppress protest movements. But the nation also got into a maritime dispute with another, much larger communist nation — one the U.S. happens to consider its No. 1 frenemy — in the South China Sea.
On Monday, Obama dismissed the notion that his decision to end the embargo was in any way related to U.S. policy toward China — before saying that the move will “ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself.” The president went on to say that all potential sales will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and will need to “meet strict requirements” with regards to human rights. In Hanoi, Obama announced a series of commercial deals that met those standards — including an $11 billion sale of 100 Boeing 737 aircraft.
Until now, Vietnam has procured most of its defense equipment from Russia. The BBC argues that this fact is unlikely to change in the immediate term, both because U.S. technology may be “too sophisticated for Vietnam’s needs” and because accepting too much American weaponry could invite unwelcome attention from their rivals in Beijing. However, the country could very much use more American-made surveillance systems to track the movement of Chinese naval forces. Analysts tell the New York Times that, in return for access to such equipment, Vietnam might grant the U.S. entry to the deepwater port at Cam Ranh Bay.
Obama touted other forms of cooperation between the onetime adversaries, including the (still-unapproved) Trans-Pacific Partnership, a research collaboration between universities in both countries, and the introduction of the U.S. Peace Corps to Vietnam. In his most direct acknowledgement of the war that ended in 1975, Obama thanked the Vietnamese government for helping the U.S. track down the remains of missing soldiers and pledged to assist in the ongoing removal of land mines and un-exploded ordnance, which continue to drive up the conflict’s civilian death toll 41 years after the Fall of Saigon.