FPI Bulletin: Vietnam and the Promises of the Asia Rebalance

May 23, 2016

This morning in Hanoi, President Obama announced that the United States will lift its decades-old ban on arms sales to Vietnam. The announcement came as Obama kicked off a week-long trip to Asia—likely the last of his administration—nearly five years after he pledged that the United States would “play a larger and long-term role in shaping the region and its future, by upholding core principles and in close partnership with our allies and friends.”  Though a closer strategic partnership with Vietnam will offer advantages, it will also test Washington’s ability to promote security in the region without weakening our commitment to human rights and democracy. 

China’s Challenge in the South China Sea

The president’s decision to sell weapons to Hanoi follows an intense debate within the administration, as well as an easing of the embargo two years ago that has allowed Vietnam to purchase retired Coast Guard patrol boats.  Now, the United States will be able to sell such equipment as radar, missiles, fighter jets, surveillance and transport aircraft.  In return, The New York Times reports that Vietnam may allow the United States access to its newly-expanded port at Cam Ranh Bay, which would establish a U.S. naval presence in the western side of the contested South China Sea at the same time as it has secured rights to use Philippine bases in the eastern side.

An American naval presence in Vietnam would be beneficial to both countries because China has aggressively moved to bring the contested waters of the South China Sea under its exclusive control.  While Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations maintain overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, China uniquely claims the entirety of it. As the Pentagon’s 2016 report on China’s military power notes, “China is using coercive tactics short of armed conflict” to establish a dominant position in this critical waterway.

“In 2015,” the report adds, “China accelerated land reclamation and infrastructure construction at its outposts in the Spratly Islands. When complete, these outposts will include harbors, communications and surveillance systems, logistics facilities, and three airfields.”  Remarkably, China reclaimed 3,200 acres of land to support its seven facilities in the South China Sea, while the other claimants in the area reclaimed only 50 acres in the same time period. 

Even though the United States maintains no territorial claims in the South China Sea, China’s actions are disconcerting because the South China Sea is one of the most important maritime crossroads in the world.  As the Pentagon’s Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy notes, “almost 30 percent of the world’s maritime trade transits the South China Sea annually, including approximately $1.2 trillion in ship-borne trade bound for the United States,” and, furthermore, “there are  approximately 11 billion barrels and 190 trillion cubic feet of proved and probable oil and natural gas reserves in the South China Sea.”

Vietnam Still a “Police State”

The President’s initiative comes at a time when 78 percent of Vietnamese view America favorably.  This may be in part because of the rapidly accelerating economic ties between the two countries.   Last year, Vietnam was America’s 19th-largest trade partner, with U.S. importing goods from Vietnam worth nearly $38 billion.  Vietnam is also a signatory to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  If enacted, the agreement may boost the country’s economy by as much as 11 percent in ten years.  This progress has led to an extraordinary rise in the prosperity of the Vietnamese people, with its middle class expected to double by 2020.

Although a growing strategic and economic relationship between America and Vietnam is encouraging, Hanoi’s human rights violations raise serious doubts as to whether Washington should proceed further.  The State Department’s latest human rights report candidly observes that Vietnam is an authoritarian one-party state that inflicts severe restrictions on its people’s rights, “including freedom of assembly, association, and expression; and inadequate protection of citizens’ due process rights, including protection against arbitrary detention.” Furthermore, Vietnam conducted “arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of life; police attacks and corporal punishment; arbitrary arrest and detention for political activities; continued police mistreatment of suspects during arrest and detention…and denial of the right to a fair and expeditious trial.”

There is little indication that Vietnam will change its behavior on human rights anytime soon, or at all.  In an April open letter to the President, Human Rights Watch said plainly, “In short, Vietnam is a police state.  In our view, the main priority of the leaders you will meet is to maintain their party’s hold on power.”  To this end, the regime imprisons more than 100 political prisoners, labeling them threats to national security. Just before Mr. Obama arrived, the country held elections that were not remotely free, with the regime carefully vetting all candidates for office, including more than 100 independent candidates whom it barred from running. 

Promises to Respect Human Rights

While announcing the decision to sell weapons to Hanoi, President Obama said that sales would be evaluated “case-by-case” in light of human rights concerns. During a trip to Hanoi earlier this month, Daniel Russel, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said an important premise for lifting the ban “would be to continue forward momentum in meeting universal human rights standards and progress in important legal reform.” Human rights advocates, especially in Congress, should ensure that both the current administration and its successor take these commitments seriously.

A 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Richard Fontaine and Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security outlined how the United States should proceed: “The scope and sort of direct U.S. military support to Vietnam should be linked to demonstrable improvements in human rights…. The provision of particular weapons systems might be tied to the release of jailed political dissidents, for example, and to a revision of statues criminalizing political activity.” Making this linkage clear, they say, could “serve as a potential catalyst for Vietnam's further opening.”

Another tool to bolster human rights in Vietnam is the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which has been passed by the Senate and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This legislation is named after Sergei Magnitsky, the Russian tax lawyer who died in prison in November 2009 after exposing government officials for committing fraud.  Congress passed the original Magnitsky Act in 2012 to honor his legacy by enabling the United States to sanction specific human rights abusers, but its provisions were limited to Russia.  The Global Magnitsky Act will expand them to abusers worldwide. With these long-overdue measures in place, the United States would be well-positioned to further apply targeted pressure against authoritarian countries like Vietnam, even as it works to expand the strategic relationship.


The challenge of upholding both America’s values and interests in Vietnam is a classic foreign policy dilemma. Closer military ties with Hanoi would no doubt bolster the growing regional response to China’s bellicose behavior. However, the President’s strategy of rebalancing to Asia includes security, economic, and human rights components that are inextricably linked. “More than our military might or the size of our economy,” wrote Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in her first discussion of the rebalance to Asia, “our most potent asset as a nation is the power of our values — in particular, our steadfast support for democracy and human rights. This speaks to our deepest national character and is at the heart of our foreign policy, including our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific region.” So it should remain.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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