President Obama has recently returned from his multi-country trip across Asia, which included a notable stop in the Vietnamese capitol, Hanoi. Here, Obama gave a speech praising the relationship between the two nations that has grown out of the rubble and chaos of the war forty years ago. He spoke of a growing middle class in Vietnam and tipped his hat to the new Vietnamese Peace Corps mission that would be opening soon. Underlying this speech, however, was the Administration’s announcement that it would be lifting the embargo on lethal weapon sales to the Communist nation. What is important to realise about this change in status quo is that it is first and foremost an exercise in diplomatic showmanship. While the Vietnamese will now have access to new weaponry, ultimately the optics of the agreement are far more significant than how the country’s military would stand to benefit.
Originally, the lifting of the arms embargo was made contingent on an improvement of Vietnam’s human rights record. Despite Human Rights Watch’s prognosis that the country’s record is still “dire in all areas”, China’s machinations in the South China Sea have forced the Obama Administration to cosy up to Southeast Asian nations faster than originally anticipated. While the idea of ending the embargo was likely on the table in the future, Obama’s wry point that human rights are “an area where we still have differences” belies the likelihood that China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea has forced the American diplomatic machine to launch its charm offensive prematurely.
This charm offensive is exemplified by deals like the lifting of the arms embargo on Vietnam, a deal that in all reality changes little in terms of the plans of the Vietnamese armed forces. There are several reasons that point to the impotence of the lifted restrictions. First, over the past ten years, Vietnam has built up its military capacity impressively, while the embargo was still in effect. Secondly, the weaponry that the United States can provide for sale is likely above the pricepoint of the small nation’s budget. Finally, the new arms availability to the Vietnamese government is overshadowed by the much more important economic realignment with the Americans.
To put the new legality of American arms purchases into context, it is important to note than in the period between 2004 and 2013, Vietnam more than doubled its military spending, at a rate that outstripped all other Southeast Asian nations. It took its dilapidated mid-70’s Air Force and updated it with new Sukhoi Su-30 fighters and S300 PMU1 air defense batteries. In 2009, on a trip to Moscow, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signed a deal with the Russians for six Kilo-class submarines, five of which have already been delivered and one of which is reportedly already patrolling the South China Sea. On the sea, Vietnam has purchased stealth frigates and guided missile cruisers from Russia, a set of SIGMA corvettes from the Dutch, and six DHC-6 Twin Otters for sea surveillance from the Canadians. The point here, in this soup of letters and numbers, is that the Vietnamese military has bulked up and modernised, even under the arms embargo from the United States, stressing that the elimination of the restrictions is not a huge game changer.
The next point, underlining the first, is that the military hardware that the United States has on offer is incredibly expensive compared to what the Vietnamese Armed Forces have been purchasing over the past decade. Take the Su-30s recently purchased for around $35 million per unit. Compare that to the astronomical price of Lockheed Martin’s F-22, which (controlling for the cost of development) has a pricetag of somewhere around $150 million per unit. The United States military and its associated partners have developed top of the line equipment that comes with a top of the line cost. This kind of cost is hard to justify on the national military budget of a country with a GDP per capita of less than $2,000. It is fairly easy to argue that the Vietnamese armed forces would get much more bang for their buck purchasing cheaper Russian equipment than expensive American gear that would be difficult to synchronise with the existing hardware.
Lastly, it is apparent that optics are far more important than actual sales to both countries, as the United States is clearly aiming to bring Vietnam into its camp. More important than actually selling weapons to their new Southeast Asian cooperative partners, President Obama and the State Department can now point to a seemingly substantive act and claim that the last skeletons of the Second Indochina War have been swept from the closet. The elimination of the arms embargo on Vietnam is simply icing on the economic cake. Now, with all bad blood from the war laid to rest, Vietnam has a friend in the Americans.
With the 2013 Comprehensive Partnership (which included aid in the form of Coast Guard cutters) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership being the much more important background, it is clear that the arms embargo issue is simply symbolic. It has been a much talked about issue, but in the end, it is demonstrably clear that the talking points presented to Vietnamese and American diplomats greatly exceed the actual military benefit Vietnam stands to reap. While this is not to say that American advanced weapon systems will not be of use to the Vietnamese in the very long run, at the moment, it is safe to say that this elimination of the arms embargo is all style and little substance.