HANOI — Vietnam is juggling long-established partners and the U.S. now that President Barack Obama has acknowledged the tragedy of the Vietnam War and announced the lifting of an arms embargo on the Southeast Asian nation.
“Cold War rivalries and fears of communism pulled us into conflict,” Obama said in a speech here last Tuesday, likely becoming the first American president to directly mention the conflict while on Vietnamese soil.
“War, no matter what our intentions may be, brings suffering and tragedy,” he said. Obama did not apologize for the 15-year conflict. But he did mention Agent Orange, a defoliant used widely by American forces during the war, demonstrating deep consideration for local sentiment and a desire to turn a new page in the two sides’ fraught history.
The U.S. had barred most weapons exports to the Southeast Asian country since the war ended in 1975. “The decision to lift the ban was not based on China” but a “desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalization with Vietnam,” Obama told a news conference the day before his speech. But many still draw connections to Beijing’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea.
Vietnam has challenged, though less adamantly than the Philippines, Chinese claims to the Spratly and Paracel islands. But Hanoi hesitates to provoke Beijing too much, mindful of their 1979 war and a border skirmish in 1984, as well as Vietnam’s economic dependence on its giant neighbor.
“Vietnam will be less dependent on any one trading partner and enjoy broader ties with more partners” under the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Obama said in his speech. But China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner, accounting for 20% of its total trade in 2015. And the Vietnamese economy depends on the Asian powerhouse in such areas as infrastructure development, electronic parts and food. Chinese President Xi Jinping promised stronger economic ties on a visit to Vietnam last November.
The end to the U.S. arms embargo may also cast a shadow over ties with Russia. Hanoi has been receiving weapons from its longtime ally since the war — and 95% of the Southeast Asian country’s military equipment, from fighter jets to submarines, is said to be Russian in origin. A full switchover to American arms seems unlikely, since they cost more and do not necessarily match the needs of the Vietnamese forces.
“We will make every effort to maintain our military ties with Vietnam,” a Russian government source said.
Washington and Moscow are also expected to jockey for the strategically located Cam Ranh Bay in the South China Sea. The Soviet Union, and then Russia, had leased the bay from 1979 to 2002 as a military base. The U.S. seeks greater access to the port for its forces and protested when tankers for Russian warplanes were found using Cam Ranh Bay last year.
By lifting the weapons embargo on Vietnam, the U.S. hopes to curb both Beijing and Moscow. China is building ties with the Southeast Asian country to throw a wrench into American efforts to contain its own maritime ambitions. Russia, meanwhile, considers Vietnam a steppingstone to bolstering its Asia-Pacific presence.
The onus is on Hanoi to flex its diplomatic muscles and strike a balance between these three major powers.