May 24, 2016 4:00 am JST

US counters China in ending Vietnam arms embargo

ATSUSHI TOMIYAMA, Nikkei staff writer

HANOI -- In lifting its ban on sales of lethal weaponry to Vietnam, the U.S. seeks to curb the growing Chinese presence in the South China Sea as Hanoi tries to strike a diplomatic balance between the Western superpower and a longtime Asian ally.

"More than two decades of normalized ties between our governments allows us to reach a new moment," U.S. President Barack Obama said here Monday in a news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang.

"Both countries have completely normalized relations," Quang said, ushering in a new era of bilateral ties.

The summit's most notable outcome was the end of the American embargo on arms exports to Vietnam -- a step the U.S. had previously conditioned on the Southeast Asian country improving its human rights record. But Obama dialed down his rhetoric Monday, saying that "we respect Vietnam's sovereignty and independence."

Washington is likely eyeing greater cooperation with Hanoi in the South China Sea. Vietnam is expected to purchase P-3C anti-submarine patrol planes and other hardware to boost surveillance capabilities in the disputed waters. The Vietnamese navy recently bought six subs from Russia but seeks to bolster air patrols against the vastly larger Chinese fleet. Beijing is said to possess 70 or more submarines.

The U.S. hopes to bolster military cooperation with Vietnam and to gain access to its key naval stronghold of Cam Ranh Bay. The port, just 550km off the disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, would help the Americans keep a closer eye on the region.

Two destroyers became Japan's first warships to make port in Cam Ranh Bay on April 12. The Maritime Self-Defense Force sent another vessel there in late May, effectively making regular calls to the strategic port.

Stronger military ties between Vietnam and the U.S. are seen helping curb Beijing's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. But China is Vietnam's largest trading partner, accounting for 20% of the Southeast Asian nation's total trade in 2015. The Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement will help foster economic ties with the U.S. But Vietnam depends heavily on China in a variety of areas, from infrastructure development to electronic parts to food.

Hanoi and Beijing are also close politically. Vietnam has modeled its Communist Party on China's, and its leading officials often visit the Asian giant around the time of major political events. Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of Vietnam's Communist Party, traveled to Beijing in April 2015 ahead of his historic trip to the U.S. that July. Then-National Assembly Chairman Nguyen Sinh Hung also visited China at the end of last year before Vietnam decided on its new leadership in January.

"Some official will probably make a courtesy call to Beijing" after Obama's visit, a government source said.

Relations with Russia, which supplies more than 90% of Vietnam's weapons, may also change. Moscow has provided Hanoi with arms since the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union, and then Russia, also leased Cam Ranh Bay from 1979 to 2002 as a naval base. The Vietnamese are not likely to fully switch over to expensive American hardware anytime soon but must carefully gauge the Russian response to the new deal.

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