This week President Obama lifted a ban decades old banning the sale of military equipment to Vietnam. While some have suggested that this was a choice to bastion China’s growing military strength in Asia, the president said this move was part of an initiative to cooperation with Vietnam for greater defense capacity. This move normalized relations and helped ease any lingering tensions from the Vietnam War. Increasing trends of globalization are seeing a greater desire for such collaborative moves, and those who are unwilling to join the movement may be left out. This sample critical essay explores the details of his trip, the embargo, and the pros and cons of lifting the restrictions
America’s relationship with Vietnam the Asian-Pacific
Other countries view the U.S. foreign policy as a failure. To reduce those conceptions, President Barack Obama makes a global tour to help stabilize international relations before his term is up, the American public has a chance to observe how other nations perceive America. Writing on the embargo ending, Fred Kaplan, the author of Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, observes:
“I visited Vietnam 11 years ago, and the deepest impression I took away was that the war had long been over, much more so for the Vietnamese people than for us.
Except for a few tourist sites, there were no signs that there had ever been a war there, much less one that ravaged the country and killed at least 2 million of its people.
It seemed all anyone wanted to do—as much in Hanoi as in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon)—was to hustle and join the world economy.” (Kaplan)
Obama’s move to lift the embargo also came with the announcement of new commercial agreements worth $16 billion in sales by Pratt & Whitney and Boeing. Thus, one of the chief motivators of this decision may simply be commercial.
Obama’s world tour
President Obama’s world tour is attempting to shift the focus from the dead ends of the Middle East squabbles, ending terrorism in other countries, and troubles to the many opportunities in Asia. However, these opportunities are balanced by the risk that China’s military might presents to American interests. Thus, the more friends America has/makes in the Asia-Pacific region the safer the nation will believe itself to be. While Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang emphasizes this choice was not about China:
“However, it’s well known that Vietnam’s leaders have been pleading for lethal weapons from Washington since 2014 when China set up an oil rig in waters near the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam claims.
Since about the same time, American emissaries have been pushing for full port rights at Cam Ranh Bay, the former Soviet naval base on Vietnam’s central coast, whose deep waters can support the largest U.S. warships.” (Kaplan)
America quakes at the prospect of a Russia-China alliance, and this reality must influence the heightened prioritizing of the Asian region.
History of the Vietnamese embargo
America has had a strong presence in the Sino region since the Vietnam war. The embargo is one example of its military and political influence. The embargo banning the sale of weapons to Vietnam began after the war in the 1970s after Congress passed reforms against countries with poor human rights records.
However, these laws allowed waives if the president certified a sale as vital to national security. Over time, these waivers became commonplace to the point where the laws became meaningless. During economic downturns, even critics of arms sales started seeing them as tempting sources of export revenue. (Kaplan)
Reconciliation between the U.S. and Vietnam has been ongoing since the 1980s, and the lifting of the embargo was the final step to walking away from the past. One of the largest driving factors of the United States economy is the military industrial complex fed by unlimited expansion capitalism. With a military presence all around the world, America is always looking to expand.
For example, “The U.S. already has naval bases in Japan, Korea, and Singapore. It also recently signed a new security agreement with the Philippines to open eight small bases for maritime operations” (Northman).
However, this is not enough to content the American military machine, and as such:
With the United States selling caches of weapons worth hundreds of millions (in some cases, billions) of dollars to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan, it doesn’t make much sense to deny a place on the list to Vietnam—whose record is no worse and, compared to some, much better. And given Vietnam’s genuine need for certain weapons (especially for maritime defense), the mutual interest a relationship holds for the U.S. Navy, and the intense level and pace of foreign investment in Vietnam over the last two decades, the idea of continuing the embargo seems shortsighted and arbitrary, at best.
And given Vietnam’s genuine need for certain weapons (especially for maritime defense), the mutual interest a relationship holds for the U.S. Navy, and the intense level and pace of foreign investment in Vietnam over the last two decades, the idea of continuing the embargo seems shortsighted and arbitrary, at best. (Kaplan)
Vietnamese embargo and mutual assurance
Since the Vietnam War, America has increased its presence in foreign nations, particularly Asian countries. The continued military expansion of many nations, the stockpiling of weapons, and the establishment of alliances is alarming. It is unfortunate that international relations could not be based on something more than aggression. Lifting the arms embargo may benefit many economies and sense of safety, but the more people are armed the less likely it is for peace to flourish.
However, it is irrational to remain unprepared in the face of major threats. Spokeswomen for the Foreign Ministry in Vietnam commented:
“The arms embargo is a product of the Cold War and should never have existed…We welcome normal relations between Vietnam and the United States” (Harris).
It is too bad that normal relations with the U.S. centers around defense, and mutually assured destruction.
Manipulation and tense friendships
This dance of threat and violence requires friendships which rest on need and manipulation, the essence of politics. As such, this move will enable a stronger military presence in the region, as:
Not only may Vietnam begin buying American ships and surveillance equipment, it could also begin hosting regular visits by U.S. military units, including U.S. Navy warships at Cam Ranh Bay.
Such trips would put American sailors square into waters that China is claiming it controls, making clear the U.S. rejects those claims and reassuring China’s nervous neighbors in the region — or so Washington hopes. (Northman)
Without actually admitting that China is the reason this choice was made, every move is being made create a stronger front. As the President tactfully commented:
“It is important for us to maintain the freedom of navigation and the governance of international norms and rules and law that have helped to create prosperity and promoted commerce and peace and security in this region” (Northman).
China seeks to expand
However, the reality is that China has an expansionist attitude, and Vietnam has every reason to feel insecure. Recently, China has been trying to exert sovereignty over the South China Sea, a territory that is rich in oil and gas, and fish, and through which more than $5 trillion worth of global trades passes each year. China lays claim to a number of islands and recently has been building artificial islands out of reefs and atolls, turning them into military outposts complete with ports, radar facilities, and landing strips. (Northman)
It is the position of the United States that the South China Sea is international waters, but this position would be strengthened if the name of the waterway did not include “China.” Strategically planned perhaps, the lifting of the embargo comes just as China is arguing with the United Nations for territorial rights to the waters (Harris). Obama’s proposed trade deal with Asia also seeks to change certain methods Vietnam and China use to expand.
Vietnam: Friend or foe
It is no secret that America is a bully, considered a threat by the rest of the world, and by American citizens themselves. America has more of its citizens in jail than any other nation in the world, by a large margin. Also, when polling who was a greater threat to the world, China or the U.S.:
“The US was voted the biggest threat by far, garnering 24 percent of the vote. Pakistan was a very distant second with 8 percent, followed by China (6 percent) and Afghanistan (5 percent)” (Marcus).
This is largely because of the corruption of the nation’s economic structure due to the military industrial complex, which requires constant chaos and fighting to keep the American money machine rolling. As seen with Obama’s recent attempts to open the door to Cuba, American advocates for global peace, “friendship,” and collaboration are looked at like the biggest bully in the neighborhood. The smaller guys want to be on the bully’s side. To keep the economy going:
Now that the US has decimated the Middle East for the last sixteen years, after an invasion that set off a mass bloodbath from Iraq to Syria, President Obama and his military advisors have turned their attention to a new enemy: China. (Marcus)
President Eisenhower warned against the military-industrial complex during WWII because he understood the temptation of the well-equipped bully. Eisenhower’s warning has gone unheeded, and his words ring more true than ever before.
He warned the American people against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex.”
In particular, he asked the American people to guard against the “‘danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite’” (History.com).
This is the world of today, and the power of the scientific-technological elite has grown to the degree that their power begins to threaten the stability of the notion of democracy.
The fact is the embargo was lifted for the sake of commerce, and not because Vietnam had improved its human rights record. Now Obama’s detractors are asking, “Now what incentive is left for the Vietnamese government to meaningfully enact human rights reforms and respect the civil rights of the Vietnamese people?” (Spetalnick) This is a question which is ringed with many other pressing issues of accountability which are go unanswered in the desire for profits.
The military industrial complex continues to move the wheel of world affairs exploitatively. Good news may be found to be bad news once the context is grasped, and the continuing armament of the world does not bode well for international stability.
Ap, Tiffany. ” Obama lifts U.S. arms ban on Vietnam.” CNN, 23 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/23/politics/obama-vietnam-trip/.
Harris, Gardiner. “Vietnam arms embargo to be fully lifted.” The New York Times, Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/24/world/asia/vietnam-us-arms-embargo-obama.html?_r=0.
History.com. “Eisenhower warns of the ‘military-industrial complex’.” History.com, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/eisenhower-warns-of-the-military-industrial-complex.
Kaplan, Fred. “This Just In: The Vietnam War Is Still Over.” Slate, n.d. Retrieved from: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/war_stories/2016/05/why_obama_ended_the_lethal_arms_embargo_with_vietnam.html.
Northam, Jackie. “Arms Embargo Lift Also Means More Regular U.S. Military Visits To Vietnam.” NPR, 28 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/05/28/479618629/arms-embargo-lift-also-means-more-regular-u-s-military-visits-to-vietnam.
Marcus, Jacqueline. “Lifting Arms Embargoes: Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around a Missile From Obama on Memorial Day.” Truth-out, 27 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.truth-out.org/buzzflash/commentary/lifting-arms-embargoes-tie-a-yellow-ribbon-around-a-missile-from-obama-on-memorial-day#14645043829401&action=collapse_widget&id=0&data=.
Spetalnick, Matt. “U.S. lifts arms ban on old foe Vietnam as China tensions simmer.” Reuters, 23 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-obama-idUSKCN0YD050.