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Obama weighs lifting Vietnam arms embargo

epa05297187 US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (EPA) Daniel R. Russel gestures during a media roundtable with journalists to discuss regional issues which include the South China Sea and ASEAN, in Hanoi, Vietnam, 10 May 2016.  EPA/LUONG THAI LINH


Washington / AFP

The White House is considering lifting a decades-old arms embargo against Vietnam in time for President Barack Obama’s visit to the booming Southeast Asian nation this month.
As both countries warily eye China’s military build-up in the disputed South China Sea, officials said Obama is weighing an end to the Cold War-era ban on lethal weapons exports.
Obama begins his first visit to Vietnam on May 21, some 41 years after the North Vietnamese army and its Viet Cong allies marched into Saigon, humiliating the world’s preeminent superpower.
Now the former foes—who fought a murderous 19-year war that defined both nations and killed untold thousands—are putting ideology aside and gradually building deeper trade, military and political ties. Washington and Hanoi have been pushed together by Vietnam’s increasingly vibrant 80-million-people-strong economy, Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and a mutual desire to limit China’s regional clout.
Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing has taken a more assertive stance on territorial claims in the South China Sea—deploying materiel to the disputed Spratly Islands.
Recent military reforms announced by Xi dramatically increased navy spending.
With that, some inside the Obama administration argue that the time has come for the United States to help bolster Vietnam with the sale of advanced military equipment.
“It is a relatively easy argument for those who favor lifting the ban,” said Christian Lewis of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy.
“The benefits of deepening strategic ties to Vietnam and simultaneously containing China exceed the perceived downside of supplying Vietnam military hardware,” he added.
If the ban is lifted, most observers expect sales to start small—in part to assuage concerns about human rights, and in part not to spook China too much.
Recent preparatory visits by US-based arms contractors to Vietnam focused on the sale of less controversial maritime surveillance and patrol hardware.
But in the medium term, the embargo would open the way for sales across the board.
“This is going to be a long term thing, but it has strategic importance because of the psychological shift,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security.
Vietnamese military spending has increased dramatically in the last decade, by 130 percent since 2005, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
China and Vietnam share a checkered history of border disputes, invasions and conflict and anti-Chinese sentiment has helped frame Vietnamese national identity.
During the Cold War, Vietnam was closer to the Soviet Union than it was to its behemoth neighbor to the north.

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