New York Times
THE United States and Vietnam moved more quickly than most adversaries to rebuild a relationship after a devastating war. It took only two decades for the two countries to re-establish diplomatic ties after the Americans withdrew from Vietnam in 1973. President Barack Obama plans to visit the country this month.
Obama should not feel obliged to give Vietnam's authoritarian government what it wants a complete lifting of the embargo on arms shipments imposed during the war, unless it takes credible steps toward addressing serious human rights abuses. Still, there are many points of agreement.
Vietnam is central to Obama's strategy of focusing more attention on Asia and uniting the region economically, militarily and politically to counter an increasingly assertive China. Economic ties are growing stronger the United States is now the largest importer of Vietnamese goods. Along with 11 other countries, Vietnam has joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which seeks to further expand regional trade while also improving labour and environmental standards.
This year, Fulbright University Vietnam will open in Ho Chi Minh City, offering an American model of education that stresses academic independence and innovation. The two sides are cooperating on biodiversity research, and Washington is helping Vietnam cope with the environmental and health damage caused by Agent Orange over much of the southern part of the country.
On the military front, the two countries agreed last year to conduct joint operations between their navies and cooperate in global peacekeeping. America has provided boats, training and equipment to Vietnam's coast guard to fight transnational crime and counter China's efforts to control most of the South China Sea.
Vietnam is pushing for a total repeal of the wartime arms embargo, which Obama eased in 2014, on grounds that it is an unnecessary relic and that lifting it would improve trust and allow the country to better defend itself. Advocates for lifting the ban say the move would send a strong signal to China. Given Hanoi's authoritarian ways, though, this is not the time to lift the ban completely. The Communist Party controls all institutions in Vietnam, permits no free elections, holds more than 100 political prisoners and has yet to meet its obligations under the new trade agreement to allow labour unions.
On a visit to Hanoi last month, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the government to release all political prisoners and made clear that Vietnam needs to expand rights and freedoms if it hopes to build a culture of entrepreneurship and enhance economic growth. Obama should reinforce those themes.
If he does lift the arms ban, Obama and Congress should move cautiously.
Arms sales licences should be decided on a case-by-case basis, of course, as they are with all countries. And, as Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont has advised, the government should weigh all factors, including whether Vietnam is willing to act"to protect freedom of expression and other fundamental rights."