The Buzz

Vietnam: America’s Big Strategic Opportunity in Asia (Think China)

Obama’s just completed his trip to Vietnam, the first of his presidency.

The US President discussed trade and investment, economic and energy development, human rights and democracy (the main area of disagreement in the joint presidential news conference), academic exchanges and humanitarian assistance, and of course regional security issues (i.e., China).

It was impressive to see how warmly the president was greeted, both in his public speeches and during his motorcades, when many younger people, eager for more political and commercial freedom, cheered his appearance.

For the readers of this website, perhaps the most important event was Obama’s announcement that the United States would remove the last prohibitions against Vietnamese purchases of U.S. weapons as well as expand other military cooperation.

Vietnam now will be subject to the same arms transfer executive and congressional branch rules that apply to all foreign military buyers of the United States. The Vietnamese welcomed the measures as signaling how their relationship had finally been “normalized.”

For both governments, the move was clearly aimed at strengthening Vietnam’s ability to counter further Chinese encroachments in the disputed maritime territories of the South China Sea.

U.S. official worry that, if Beijing continues its present coercive tactics and regional militarization, the vitality of this critical seaway will be threatened.

Obama insisted that the Pentagon would continue to send ships and planes through this vital waterway and would defend the principles of peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of commerce, adherence to international law, and respect for other norms sometimes contested by Beijing.

In signaling U.S. willingness to expand the transfer of arms to Vietnam, U.S. policy makers aim to discourage such Chinese behavior directly and by showing Beijing how assertive Chinese policies are driving Beijing’s neighbors to align with Washington against China.

According to media reports, including press briefings by U.S. officials, before the president’s departure for Hanoi the Obama administration remained undecided on whether to lift the arms sale ban.

What may have finally tipped the scales in favor of removing all restrictions was the aggressive flying by Chinese fighter jets a week before the visit to maneuver within about 15 meters of a U.S. Navy reconnaissance plane.

Chinese opposition to U.S. surveillance patrols is well known, but these flights, as well as U.S. maritime reconnaissance patrols, occur outside Chinese territory over international waters. Since the Chinese harassment closely resembles recent incidents where Russian warplanes flew recklessly near U.S. patrols in international waters, the Pentagon may have lobbied for renewed arms sales as a means of signaling to Moscow as well as Beijing that such actions have costs.

Developing this line further, besides deterring Chinese adventurism, the new U.S. approach toward Southeast Asian arms sales provides an opportunity to weaken the Beijing-Moscow alignment.

In addition to its well-known security ties with China, Russia also tries to maintain military cooperation with the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) through bilateral dialogue and drills as well as through multilateral structures.

Of note given Obama’s repeal of the arms embargo on Vietnam, has become a more important market for Russian weapons sales in recent years.

At a time when Rosoboronexport, the state corporation that oversees Russia’s foreign weapons sales, is thinking of skipping the Farnborough International Airshow since the European arms market is “not interesting” to the Russian defense industry due to sanctions and other restrictions on defense collaboration.

Whereas ASEAN states bought only six percent of Russia’s arms exports in 2010, the figure increased to 15 percent in 2015. From 2007 through 2014, Russian weapons sales to the Asia-Pacific region and other Asian countries—including hundreds of tanks, warplanes, helicopters, armored vehicles, and self-propelled guns, as well as thousands of missiles–amounted to more than $30 billion.

Rosoboronexport, that the “successful use of Russian weapons on large- scale counterterrorist operations” will boost sales even further in coming years—such as of the Kalibr (NATO reporting name: SS-N-27 Sizzler, or “Club” for the export version) cruise missiles, and the Russian Naval platforms that launched them against Syria.

Indonesia is anticipated to buy advanced Russian Su-35 Flanker-E (export-version) fighters, which only China has purchased so far, to supplement the Su-27 and Su-30s already in its fleet and replace its aging U.S.-made F-5E/F fighter planes.

Rosoboronexport also expects the Indonesian Marine Corps to buy more Russian-made BMP-3F infantry fighting vehicles.

Rosoboronexport also hopes to sell more advanced fighters to the Royal Malaysian Air Force, building on the earlier $900 million sale of 18 Su-30MKM ([NATO reporting name: Flanker-H) fighters. Russian Helicopters continues to service the combat helicopters Laos purchased from Russia in the 1990s.

In pursuit of a June 2015 contract, Russia has already planned to deliver three Yakovlev Yak-130 (Mitten) combat-ready trainer planes and associated equipment to Myanmar (Burma) by the end of the year. Bangladesh has also purchased some of the Yak-130 and Vietnam has expressed interest in the plane as well.

Vietnam has arguably been Russia’s closest strategic partner in Southeast Asia.