Southeast Asia Heats Up – Again!
By Sol W. Sanders
Friday, May 13th, 2016 @ 3:40PM
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vietnam’s Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong after their meeting in Washington on 7 July 2015. Obama is to visit Vietnam and Japan from 21 to 28 May, 2016 (Credit: Hanoi News, August 25, 2015)
Reports of a secret arms conference in Vietnam with U.S. suppliers attending is one more sign that events in Southeast Asia are again heating up. The fundamental issue is, of course, Beijing’s effort to build a series of military bases on shoals which lie across one of the world’s most important ocean commercial arteries.
Chinese activity in the South China Sea also impinges on claims of the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia to these waters and their miniscule islets.
The Vietnam symposium, closed to the media and with no public announcement, is part of Hanoi’s effort to get the U.S. to lift its arms embargo against the Communist victor in the long and bitter Vietnam War which cost some 54,000 lives. In fact Washington partially lifted the embargo in 2914 but warned that more progress would only come with improvement in Vietnam’s human rights record. The U.S. official who presides over human rights policy, Tom Malinowski, is in Hanoi this week, apparently taking an on the spot look at Vietnam’s continued suppression of opposition to the Communists and to persecution of religious groups.
Although Russia continues – as it did during the Vietnam War – to be Hanoi’s principal supplier of military equipment, the Vietnamese want access to American fighter jets, helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft, often considered superior technology to Moscow’s exports. Vietnamese Vice Defense Minister Lt-Gen Nguyen Chi Vinh was quoted in the official media saying that Vietnam’s relationship with the United States lacked defense industry cooperation, but that Hanoi wanted Washington “to provide modern, suitable and adaptable technology”. Already buying weapons from India and Israel as well as Russia, Hanoi is aiming at a strategy of not depending on one single country supplier.
Hanoi has recently purchased six modern Kilo-class submarines from Russia equipped with Klub cruise missiles, Russian-built S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries, and from Israel, and Jerusalem’s Galil assault rifles and AD-STAR 2888 radars. Vietnam also has Tarantul-class corvettes, known as Molniyas, modelled on Russian designs equipped with 16 missiles with a range of 80 miles..
Some decision may be forthcoming after Pres. Barack Obama’s visit to Vietnam starting May 22. With a growing dispute between Hanoi and its old ally in Beijing over claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands and more than one report of minor clashes over the last few years between the two East Asian powers, the enemy of my enemy is my friend law of geopolitics seems to be invoked by Washington.
Access to American technology is only part of the new Hanoi courtship with the U.S. producers. The Vietnamese, increasingly seeing themselves as victims of the powerful Chinese push into the South China Sea – some Vietnamese claimed territory is already occupied by Beijing – want to increase American intervention in the growing crisis area and use Washington as part of its maneuvering against Beijing.
We hope that the Obama Administration, not noted for its subtlety in withdrawing American leadership from critical areas around the world as part of Obama’s concept that U.S. is over-committed, will take a “tough love” stand toward Hanoi.
Vietnam needs the U.S. more than we need the Vietnamese despite their confrontation with the Chinese making them de facto allies. Lessening the government’s oppression of its own people with every weapon carried over from its years in the Soviet Bloc have to be an important concern in any move to give Hanoi access to U.S. weapons, and inferentially, U.S. tactical and strategic concepts.
* Another version of this commentary was published by the Washington Times, on May 12, 2016.