After a period of broken diplomatic ties following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the United States and Vietnam re-established formal diplomatic relations in 1995. Since then, the two nations have built increasingly close strategic and economic ties, to the point that Hanoi is now one of the United States’s closest security partners in Asia. With a professional military and a highly strategic location, Vietnam is gradually becoming as important to U.S. security interests in the region as longtime allies and partners like Thailand and Malaysia. In addition, Vietnam’s economy, which has significant room for expansion, is far more attractive to new investors than Thailand, where foreign investment dropped by roughly 90 percent year-on-year in 2015. Despite being authoritarian, Vietnam is also---for now---relatively stable, compared to countries in the region that have undergone troubled attempts at democratization, like Thailand and Malaysia.
However, despite this gradual process of economic and strategic normalization, the end of the arms embargo on Vietnam, which President Obama announced this week he would lift, marks the final step in restoring full relations. As I noted last week, despite my concerns about Southeast Asia’s democratic regression, and my general belief that the United States partners most effectively around the world with other democracies, I thought that fully lifting the embargo was the right move. The lifting of the embargo should not be done under false pretenses: Vietnam has not improved its record on human rights significantly in recent years (although it released some writers and civil society activists last year), and there is little evidence that lifting the embargo is going to convince Hanoi to open up the political environment either. Vietnam has no prominent opposition leader, like Malaysia or Cambodia, and a weak and battered civil society.
In addition, lifting the embargo will not mean that U.S. defense manufacturers are suddenly going to win a flood of contracts in Hanoi. Although Vietnam is now one of the ten largest buyers of arms in the world, according to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute, its military equipment relies on Russian arms and armor, for historical reasons, and Russian arms are much cheaper as well. Although Vietnamese officials are interested in U.S.-made patrol aircraft and coast guard helicopters, it may be some time before Hanoi buys U.S.-manufactured fighter planes. Russia also tends to offer valuable offsets for its arms sales that can drastically reduce the price paid; Moscow is now pitching itself to Thailand too in part through its valuable offsets.
However, the increasingly tense situation in the South China Sea, and Vietnam’s growing strategic and economic importance, outweigh U.S. concerns about Hanoi’s admittedly terrible human rights record. In addition, there is little evidence that U.S. strategic and economic relations with Vietnam are viewed, by most Vietnamese, as a fillip to the Communist Party, the way that many Malaysians see U.S. ties with Kuala Lumpur as strengthening the power of Prime Minister Najib tun Razak and the ruling coalition.
Most importantly, the lifting of the embargo, and Vietnam’s increasing willingness to be seen, regionally, as a close partner of the United States, is a sign that Hanoi is abandoning its decades-old strategy of balancing relations between Beijing and Washington. Hanoi is embracing closer strategic relations with U.S. Asian partners like the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, and India, while doing little to mend strained relations with Beijing. On the heels of Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong’s visit to Washington last year, the end of the arms embargo, and a stepped-up U.S.-Vietnam defense relationship, suggest that even Nguyen Phu Trong, believed to be relatively wary of U.S. ties, has embraced a shift toward Washington. It was Nguyen Phu Trong, after all, who tried to reach Chinese leaders in May 2014, after protests broke out in Vietnam over the movement of a Chinese oil rig into disputed waters in the South China Sea. For weeks, no one in Beijing answered his call---or the calls of other top Vietnamese leaders.