Earlier this month, Senator John McCain indicated that it was time for the United States to consider selling lethal weapons to Vietnam after a 30-year embargo. The recent maritime standoff between Beijing and Hanoi over Chinese oil exploration off the central coast of Vietnam exposed Hanoi’s many strategic weaknesses.
Providing Vietnam with coast guard and maritime systems as a first step - and eventually radar, fighter aircraft and spare parts for leftover American military equipment - would bolster Hanoi’s strategic capabilities vis-a-vis China and give substance to the
"comprehensive partnership" announced last year between Hanoi and Washington.
But more than modern weapon systems, what Vietnam really needs for its long-term security is modern political values. Only through a free and open society can the country mobilize the national unity and prosperity needed to safeguard its sovereignty.
The Hanoi leadership's dilemma between pursuing the national interest and ensuring the communist regime's preservation has often led to incoherent and contradictory actions. Since the 1950s, that has meant acquiescing to Beijing's territorial grabs at the expense of Vietnamese sovereignty. In recent years, Hanoi has accommodated Beijing by suppressing domestic criticism of Chinese expansionism.
During the war, communist North Vietnam relied heavily on Chinese military support. But Beijing’s assistance was costly. In a 1958 diplomatic note, then prime minister Pham Van Dong implicitly recognized Beijing's claim over virtually the entire South China Sea. In 1974, Hanoi was deafly silent when China invaded and occupied the Paracel Islands, which were then held by South Vietnam.
Following the war, Hanoi's tilt toward the Soviet Union and invasion of neighboring Cambodia resulted in a break with China that culminated in a bloody border war in 1979. But by 1990, with the Soviet Union no longer providing aid and communist states in Eastern Europe collapsing like dominoes, Hanoi re-established diplomatic relations with Beijing.
The rapprochement was brokered at a secret summit held in the southern Chinese city of Chengdu in September 1990. The agreements concluded by the senior leadership of both communist parties have still not been publicized. Based on limited revelations by retired officials, Vietnamese bloggers speculate that Hanoi made key concessions regarding land and maritime borders as the price for normalization.
Since Chengdu, Hanoi has closely followed Beijing’s model of "Market Leninism", characterized by a quasi-open economy and closed political system. While the average Vietnamese citizen is undoubtedly wary of China based on two millennia of conflict, communist regime elites have profited from Chinese economic investment and ideological support.
This may explain why Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh recently described China's violation of Vietnam's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as just a small disagreement among "brothers". Speaking at the Shangri-La defense dialogue on May 31, General Thanh was reluctant to openly criticize Beijing, even as its naval forces were harassing Vietnamese coast guard and fishing vessels in the vicinity of an oil rig operated by state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation.
In apparent deference to Beijing, the ruling Communist Party’s politburo reportedly barred Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh from traveling to the US during the maritime standoff. Only after China removed the oil rig did Hanoi send a senior party official to the US, though surprisingly not the perceived as pro-West foreign minister.
Nor is it clear why Vietnam has still not initiated a legal case at the United Nations, as the Philippines has done for its maritime dispute with China. Even though most outside observers regard Vietnam as holding the legal high ground against China, Hanoi is deeply conflicted on whether to internationalize the dispute. As a result, Beijing is still able to define the issue bilaterally, a one-on-one interaction that allows China to leverage its large country advantages.
Until the Hanoi’s Communist Party leadership demonstrates a willingness to break away from Beijing's influence, lifting the American arms embargo will not fix Vietnam's core weakness, which is political rather than military.
Senator McCain was correct to link military assistance to human rights: "How much we can do in this regard, as with our other most ambitious trade and security objectives, depends greatly on additional action by Vietnam on human rights."
Indeed, now is the time for the US to establish concrete and sensible conditions for lifting the arms embargo. By spelling out conditions that ultimately bolster Vietnam's security, US policymakers can elevate the bilateral relationship to the next level in good faith.
The foremost condition should be the unconditional release of all political prisoners. It is ironic that while Hanoi is pushing for Washington to take a stronger public stand on the South China Sea, it continues to detain Vietnamese citizens who have peacefully spoken out against Chinese aggression.
Second would be the repeal of vague national security provisions which systematically criminalize free expression and peaceful political activity. As long as Vietnamese authorities confuse blogging or pro-democracy advocacy with threats to national security, they will not be able to focus properly on the existential threat arising from an increasingly aggressive China.
Third would be to focus the mission of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) solely on external defense. Currently, the PAVN is mandated with three roles: protecting the regime, external defense, and economic development. American weapons should never be delivered to a military that's geared toward suppressing dissent in the name of internal security.
An online poll conducted by the BBC’s Vietnamese language service in July asked readers which country they preferred Vietnam to ally with. The US was chosen by 87% of respondents, while China was selected by a mere 1%.
The poll results confirm the observations of nearly all Vietnam watchers: the Vietnamese people want closer ties with the US and greater diplomatic distance from China. The survey confirmed another hard truth: that the vast majority of Vietnamese citizens currently do not have a voice in their national affairs under the current authoritarian regime.
The issue of providing lethal weapons to Vietnam will likely be considered by the Obama administration and Congress in the near future. Concerned by a rising China, some American policy makers might view the arms embargo as the chief impediment to closer US-Vietnam ties.
But American weapons alone won't result in a stronger Vietnam, nor a deeper strategic relationship. The upcoming debate should also be guided by an appreciation for what would most empower Vietnam and its people - improved human rights and greater civil liberties.
Duy Hoang is a US-based leader of Viet Tan, an unsanctioned pro-democracy political party in Vietnam.