While visiting Vietnam, President Obama announced the United States would be lifting the arms embargo against the country, calling it a "vestige" of the Cold War. The move is part of the "Asia pivot," or as the Defense Department described it in their statement on the embargo, "emphasis on U.S. relations with partners in the Asia-Pacific region."
Secretary of State John Kerry said today that the lifting of the embargo was about promoting a "rules-based order" in the region, which he called the fastest-growing marketplace in the world.
China initially signaled support for a lifting of the arms embargo against another communist country. A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the ban "a product of the Cold War" that "should no longer exist."
"We hope the lifting of all such bans will benefit regional peace and development," she said. "And we are happy to see the United States and Vietnam develop normal cooperative relations."
That was Monday. By Tuesday there were a number of editorials in government-mouthpiece newspapers that slammed the lifting of the embargo. Although nominally connected ideologically, Vietnam and China have a number of territorial disputes, including in the South China Sea, where other countries in the region, including the Philippines, Malaysia, and Taiwan, also make disputed claims.
An editorial in China Daily expressed concern about President Obama's Vietnam trip bolstering U.S. containment of China. "Whatever common interests the two countries pursue," the editorial declared, "they should never compromise China's national interests and threaten regional security."
The editorial insisted that despite disputes in the South China Sea, "China and Vietnam have made public their commitment to resolving their differences properly through cooperation and dialogue".
China Daily criticized talk about the arms deal as part of the Asia pivot. "This, if true, bodes ill for regional peace and stability," the editorial warned, "as it would further complicate the situation in the South China Sea, and risk turning the region into a tinderbox of conflicts."
"It remains to be seen whether such a worry is justified," China Daily acknowledged.
"To distance himself from a confrontational stance against China, Obama was quick to separate the decision to lift the Vietnam arms sales ban from any shared interest to contain China, saying it was based on completing the normalization of relations with Vietnam not on China," the China Daily editorial read. "We hope Obama means what he says."
The nationalist Global Times took a less charitable stance, calling Obama's claim that the lifting of the arms embargo isn't aimed at China as "a very poor lie which reveals the truth—exacerbating the strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing" in its own editorial.
"Trade in arms between the US and Vietnam, two nations with completely different political systems, is of great symbolic significance," the editorial declared. "Obviously, Obama is planning to create some diplomatic legacies before leaving office, as well as further promote the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific.
"When the US has an urgent need to contain China in the South China Sea, the standards of its so-called human rights can be relaxed," the editorial continued. President Obama "nudged" Vietnam on human rights issues, as the Washington Post described it. At least three activists who were scheduled to meet with the president were prevented from doing so by Communist authorities, according to the president himself.
The Global Times claimed the U.S. had three "strategic emphases," or "nets" they were knitting around China with the help of Vietnam—ideological, security, and economic. It said the U.S. was trying to "keep disseminating American values in the Southeast Asian region through underlining human rights and democracy," and additionally "taking advantage of Vietnam to stir up more troubles in the South China Sea." It was also, according to the Times, "promoting trade ties with Hanoi and reconstructing the production chain based on the Trans-Pacific Partnership" to help the U.S. with its pivot.
The Times noted that most Vietnam's weapons systems were Russian-made, and so Vietnam was "incapable of achieving a short-term transformation over either personnel training or logistics support," and insisted China's "starting point to keep playing strategic games with the U.S." was in the economic and trade sphere, through Chinese initiatives like "One Belt, One Road," which seek to integrate China into the wider regional economy through more infrastructure and production outsourcing. The Obama administration has expressed frustration with China's increasingly confrontational stance in the last several years, appearing to be oblivious to the connection it has to the "Asia pivot" itself.
The arms embargo is the last of the restrictions the U.S. put in place on Vietnam after the Vietnam War. In a joint op-ed in The New York Times, Vietnam veterans Kerry, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), identified two U.S. lessons from Vietnam. The first was to "never again confuse a war with the warriors."
The second lesson, according to the three, was that "our leaders need to be honest with Congress and the American people about our plans, goals and strategy when the lives of our fighting men and women are put at risk." They noted that the first combat troops sent to Vietnam were described as "flood relief." Kerry, of course, is a member of an administration that has obfuscated and prevaricated about the presence, actions of U.S. troops and the dangers they are exposed to in deployments to nebulous, ill-defined conflicts around the world.