Why is the U.S. arming Vietnam?

President Barack Obama’s announcement Monday that he was lifting the ban on the sale of weapons to Vietnam sent one message to the former U.S. wartime foe and another to the region.

By ending the ban, the U.S. is signaling its desire to leave behind decades of tense post-war relations with Vietnam and start a new phase of closer economic and military ties — one facet of the “rebalance” toward Asia that’s central to the president’s foreign policy legacy.

At the same time, the U.S. is showing the region — and particularly China — that it is committed to maintaining international rules in Asia and to backing up smaller countries in area where tensions have been rising as an increasingly assertive Beijing tries to establish maritime claims in the South China Sea.

“The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations,” Obama said in Hanoi Monday. “It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalization with Vietnam.”

Obama added that part of U.S. cooperation with Vietnam is aimed at improving their maritime security posture “for a whole host of reasons,” including strong defense ties. “But I want to emphasize that my decision to lift the ban really was more reflective of the changing nature of the relationship,” he said.

The China factor

While Obama downplayed China, small countries in the region won’t, said Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
“Vietnam and other small nations in Southeast Asia are increasingly concerned by Beijing’s actions and its push to extend its sovereignty” in the South China Sea, Klingner said.

In the last few years, China has become increasingly aggressive about its claims to maritime rights in the South China Sea, an area rich in fishing resources and, it’s believed, oil and mineral reserves that lie beneath the seabed.

A slew of countries claim sovereignty over islands and waters in the area, including Cambodia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, China, Singapore and Vietnam. But China has gone a step further by building out tiny submerged reefs, turning them into man-made islands equipped with military-use facilities such as 3,000-foot runways — a step that has heightened regional tensions.

Secretary of State John Kerry, traveling with Obama in Vietnam, underscored Tuesday the president’s point that the U.S. is not targeting China, but supporting long-standing international norms.

“A China that assumes responsibilities as a global superpower leader and plays out its responsibilities in ways that are helpful — that means encouraging peace and stability — as long as China is playing by those rules and adopting it, none of this is focused on China,” Kerry told reporters.

The U.S. emphasis on an international rules-based order that governs issues such as freedom of navigation and codes of conduct has been “the hallmark of American policy throughout the Cold War and beyond,” Kerry said, “so it’s not specifically focused on China.”

arming vietnam

Obama returned to that theme in Hanoi, saying that America and Vietnam “are united in our support for a regional order, including in the South China Sea — where international norms and rules are upheld, where there is freedom of navigation and overflight, where lawful commerce is not impeded, and where disputes are resolved peacefully, through legal means, in accordance with international law.”