Lifting the Vietnam Arms Embargo: A Catholic IR Perspective

Lifting the Vietnam Arms Embargo: A Catholic IR Perspective May 26, 2016

Earlier this week President Obama paid an official visit to Vietnam as part of his current tour of East Asia. Upon his arrival on Sunday the Vietnamese government released from prison one of the country’s most well known dissidents as a gesture of good will. Father Thaddeus Nguyen Van Ly, a founder of the pro-democracy movement Bloc 8406, has been in and out Vietnam’s prisons since 1977, spending much of remainder of that time under house arrest. While he was due to be released in the next few months, he had recently fallen ill.  While certainly a laudable development, the bigger news out of the visit was the lifting of the US arms embargo on Vietnam, allowing U.S. weapons sales to Hanoi. Historically, the arms embargo has been tied to Vietnam’s human rights record which has justifiably been dubbed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) as “dire.”

HRW summarizes the situation without mincing words:

“The Communist Party maintains a monopoly on political power and allows no challenge to its leadership. Basic rights, including freedom of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion, are restricted. Rights activists and bloggers face harassment, intimidation, physical assault, and imprisonment. Farmers continue to lose land to development projects without adequate compensation, and workers are not allowed to form independent unions. The police use torture and beatings to extract confessions. The criminal justice system lacks independence.”

Concomitantly, the Holy See’s relations with Vietnam remain tense although significant improvements have been noted in recent years – most notably Hanoi’s approval of Rome’s right to appointment seven new bishops in 2008. Former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung met with Pope Benedict in 2007 and with Pope Francis in 2014. Both meetings are considered important stepping stones in moving towards the possible re-establishment of the diplomatic ties which were severed in 1975. In some quarters, the “Vietnam Process” is considered to be a model for the Church’s future engagement with China.

Nevertheless, the lifting of the arms embargo has been met with outrage in many places. Representative Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) – a long time defender of human rights in Asia and an outspoken critic of the persecution of Catholics in China and Vietnam – stated: “This is not smart diplomacy” and declared the move to be “a surrender of U.S. interests and U.S. values.” He was joined by several other members of Congress and various human rights NGOs justifiably asking why the link between arms sales and human rights has been so abruptly abandoned.

As is the case with most questions related to US policy in Southeast Asia these days the answer is (despite official denials by the White House and the State Department): China. A bit of background is required here to set the scene. Sino-Vietnamese relations – the history of which is brilliantly explored in Brantly Womack’s splendid volume China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry – have always been problematic. And by “always” I mean “always” – we are speaking in terms of centuries here rather than decades (see: the Yuan dynasty). But to fast forward a bit: Vietnam allied itself with the Soviet Union against China after 1975 and went on to invade Beijing’s client state, Democratic Kampuchea, in 1979 – bringing to an end four years of genocidal Khmer Rouge rule. China responded by attacking Vietnam later that year, initiating the Sino-Vietnamese war, which ended in the deaths of approximately 60,000 combatants. Things have remained “frosty” ever since.

More recently, conflict between Hanoi and Beijing has revolved around China’s territorial claims over the South China Sea (China claims almost all of it based on alleged navigation of the region by Chinese sailors during the Ming dynasty) which stand in direct conflict to Vietnam’s position. The South China Sea issue has become a central topic in Sino-US relations as Beijing has expanded its power projection capabilities and attempts to build its position as the region’s hegemonic power. The Chinese Navy has been expanding a series of small reefs into military bases – complete with air strips and the permanent presence of garrisons. This has, to no one’s surprise, caused considerable disquiet in the neighborhood – with the most vigorous objections being raised by (you guessed it) Vietnam and the Philippines, whose governments continue to attempt to bring the issue before the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and various other multilateral forums (with little success, so far).

Seeking to balance a rising China, Vietnam has moved closer to the United States in recent years to offset what it perceives as a serious threat to its national interests. It is rumored that the lifting of the embargo is part of quid pro quo deal whereby Hanoi will provide the US Navy with docking rights at Cam Ranh Bay. This is a move that Beijing deeply opposes.

The situation presents a somewhat tricky question for Catholic observers of international relations as we are confronted by an apparent conflict between support for human rights on the one hand and balance of power politics on the other. As to the former, noting George Weigel’s discussion of “A Catholic Theory of International Relations” (discussed in this blog’s first post), support for human rights is a core aspect of any Catholic approach to issues of international affairs and global security. As Weigel noted:

“Taking up an insight of John XXIII, John Paul II has insisted for a quarter of a century now that human rights are the moral core of the ‘universal common good’ and that religious freedom is the first of these human rights to which the institutions of international public life must attend.”

Clearly, as noted above, Vietnam has some distance to go as regards human rights protections in general and religious freedom protections in particular. While there have been improvements, the case for abandoning the linkage of the weapons embargo to human rights does not seem to have been made and was most likely not much of a consideration in the ultimate decision to bring the embargo to an end. The question: will those weapons be used against the people of Vietnam, remains outstanding and highly worrying.

For the sake of argument, however, let’s try a different tact. The lifting of the embargo could (possibly) have two positive outcomes. First, it could support the preservation of peace – of a sort. The end of the embargo could undermine China’s claims to hegemony in the region and provide much needed balance against that country’s rapid militarization of the South China Sea. This, of course, is by no means guaranteed – the move could also result in a tit-for-tat style build up in the region, increasing tensions, and heightening the possibility of conflict.  Moreover, from the perspective of Catholic IR theory – weapons sales are probably something that should not be endorsed. Although one must ask, building on Just War Theory, whether they are justifiable: (i) to provide Vietnam with a means to self defense from a large, threatening neighbor and (ii) to preserve a peaceful if tense equilibrium in the region? If Catholic IR theory is going to seriously engage with and influence the day to day realities of global politics, it must engage with the full spectrum of policy decisions and provide a more nuanced analysis than has historically been provided by commentators.

Second, deeper cooperation between the United States and Vietnam could facilitate a new era of engagement and deepening of ties, potentially leading to new reforms on the part of the government of Vietnam and resulting in improvements to human rights protections in the long term. It’s certainly possible, but there is precious little evidence to indicate that strategies of engagement are successful in facilitating the reform of authoritarian regimes. The U.S. has actively engaged with China and Vietnam for some time and the pace of reform has ranged from non-existent to snail-like.

In my view, the administration’s decision was an incredibly smart strategic move to block China’s regional ambitions and may very well be somewhat justifiable from a Catholic perspective for the “preserving peace” reasons set out above. However, it is also essential to note that Washington had a great deal of leverage here in pushing for more serious reforms to human rights than the release of one long suffering priest. In that sense, it must be viewed as a missed opportunity.




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