Two decades after normalizing relations with Vietnam, the United States is seeking to forge even closer ties as the two countries face a common challenge in China.
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD | OCT. 24, 2014
Two decades after normalizing relations with Vietnam, the United States is seeking to forge even closer ties as the two countries face a common challenge in China. To that end, the Obama administration recently eased a longtime ban on providing lethal weapons to Vietnam and approved the sale of technology for a civilian nuclear energy program. Both initiatives should be carried out with great care so as to ensure regional stability.
Private companies eager to invest in Vietnam have been the main drivers of a better relationship. Trade and investment exploded after the United States lifted its economic embargo in 1994. In 2011, President Obama announced plans to give Asia greater emphasis in his foreign policy — a rebalancing aimed at strengthening ties with countries that, like the United States, are wary about an increasingly aggressive China.
Vietnam and the United States still have divergent political systems — Vietnam is run by a Communist Party and has a dismal human rights record. Yet they share interests in preventing the use of force in maritime disputes, ensuring freedom of navigation and expanding trade. In 2013, Mr. Obama and President Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam agreed on a “comprehensive partnership” that pledged cooperation on a range of issues, including defense and energy.
China is Vietnam’s top trading partner, and Vietnam has tried hard not to provoke it. But China’s decision in May to position a massive oil rig in an area of the South China Sea claimed by Vietnam caught Hanoi off guard and exposed its vulnerability. One result is the Obama administration’s move to partly lift the ban on transfers of lethal arms, a term that embraces a broad array of military items but in this case refers to fairly modest defense systems.
The transfers should be limited to such systems and approved case by case. Vietnam has little ability now to do surveillance. Some American officials want to offer P-3 surveillance planes; a wiser course would be to start by providing less sophisticated and less threatening items like patrol boats — unarmed, but capable of carrying guns at some future point — for Vietnam’s coast guard. Caution is justified because Asia is awash in new weapons and America needs to consider how arming its partners will affect regional tensions. China tends to interpret America’s increased engagement as a threat.
Caution is also justified because of Vietnam’s poor human rights record; the government is still jailing political prisoners and crushing dissent. America cannot be so eager for partnership that it transfers weapons without calibrating such decisions based on how Vietnam treats its own people.
The other initiative is the civilian nuclear energy deal, signed in May. It allows American companies to apply for licenses to export nuclear research and equipment to Vietnam, whose ambition is to become the first Southeast Asian nation to operate a nuclear power plant. Vietnam’s hope is that nuclear power will provide up to 30 percent of its energy needs by 2050. Vietnam has a law on the books forbidding the development of nuclear weapons. Even so, as part of the civilian energy deal, the administration should have insisted that Vietnam promise not to enrich and reprocess nuclear material, which could be used to make bomb-grade fuel.
Vietnam has emerged as a major player in America’s plans to build a regional counterweight to China, despite the trauma of the Vietnam War. Though Vietnam’s repressive system is a brake on the partnership, officials are optimistic that a younger generation of Vietnamese will come to see that a freer society is necessary and can only enhance their country’s standing in the world. In the meantime, it is in America’s interests to engage Vietnam whenever it can.