As the U.S. and Vietnam both look to take a stronger stance against Chinese territorial aggression, the countries signed a new defense deal. Defense News reports:
The Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations was signed at a ceremony by US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Vietnamese Defence Minister Gen. Phung Quang Thanh. […]The agreement explicitly calls to “expand defense trade between our two countries, potentially including cooperation in the production of new technologies and equipment, where possible under current law and policy restrictions.”Getting there won’t be quick, the [anonymous U.S.] official warned, but it is a potential watermark for any defense industry players who look at the regional market and hope to exploit the growing split between Beijing and Hanoi.
Yet despite the new defense agreement, there are still some obstacles to full U.S-Vietnam collaboration: Washington has instituted a ban on providing lethal arms to Hanoi based on the communist government’s increasingly authoritarian domestic policies. Vietnam isn’t happy about this, since it brought up the issue up during the triumphant show of friendship. The AP reports:
Speaking during a news conference after the meeting with Carter, [Defense Minister Phung Quang] Thanh said through an interpreter that the full removal of the weapons sales restrictions would be “in line with the interests of both countries. And I think we should not attach that decision to the human rights issue.”And he offered a broad defense of the government, saying it respects the rights and freedoms of the people.Last October the U.S. partially lifted its ban on weapons sales to Vietnam, allowing only the sale of lethal maritime security and surveillance capabilities. To date no weapons have flowed to Vietnam.
How Vietnam is treating its citizens—regularly abusing and torturing detainees accused of criticizing the government—is of legitimate concern, and it’s understandable why there are voices inside the U.S. counseling against closer cooperation with the Vietnamese. But under the forward-leaning U.S. policy against China’s attempts to claim territory by building islands, Vietnam now sits at center stage. Foreign policy is ultimately the art of making decisions, and we certainly hope our policymakers aren’t unduly blinded by haughty moralizing to see that bigger issues are at play here. China, certainly, is watching closely.