- - Thursday, May 12, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The more things change, they more they stay the same. Southeast Asia is bubbling again, with whispers of a secret arms conference of American arms suppliers and the government of Vietnam. China’s construction of military bases on reclaimed shoals in the South China Sea, put across one of the world’s most important sea lanes, has put everyone on edge. China professes no malign purpose, but, as the ancient saying goes, “when China spits, Asia swims.”

The very presence of the Chinese in the South China Sea impinges on territorial claims not only of Vietnam, but of the Philippines and Malaysia, too.

The Vietnam arms meeting, closed to the press and with no public announcement of what went on, is part of a Vietnamese effort to get the United States to lift the arms embargo imposed after the long and bitter Vietnam War. In fact, Washington eased the embargo in 2014, but warned that more flexibility would depend on improving Vietnam’s dreadful human rights record. The U.S. official who presides over American human rights policy, Tom Malinowski, is in Hanoi this week to look at Vietnam’s continued suppression of opposition to the Communist regime, and the persecution of religious groups.

Although Russia continues to be Hanoi’s principal supplier of military equipment, as it was in the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese want to buy American fighter jets, helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft, which are better than anything Russia has to offer. The Vietnamese vice defense minister, Lt. Gen. Nguyen Chi Vinh, says Vietnam’s relationship with the United States lacks defense-industry cooperation, and Hanoi wants the United States “to provide modern, suitable and adaptable technology.”

The Vietnamese are determined not to depend on one single suppler. The government recently purchased six modern Kilo-class submarines from Russia, equipped with Klub cruise missiles, Russian-built S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries, and Israel’s Galil assault rifles and AD-STAR 2888 radars. Vietnam previously bought Tarantul-class corvettes, known as Molniyas, modeled on Russian designs, equipped with 16 missiles with a range of 80 miles.

A decision may be forthcoming after President Obama’s visit to Vietnam, beginning May 22. With a growing dispute between Hanoi and its old ally in Beijing over claims to the Paracel and Spratly Islands and minor clashes over the past few years between the two East Asian powers, the United States seems to be working on the familiar law of geopolitics, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Access to American technology is only part of the new Hanoi courtship of American arms merchants. The Vietnamese see themselves as victims of the Chinese push into the South China Sea and are eager to increase American intervention in the expanding crisis area. The United States is an important guest at the dance.

Mr. Obama, having dispensed with subtlety in his attempt to withdraw from the world, must show tough love toward Hanoi. Vietnam needs the United States more than vice-versa, despite the confrontation in the South China Sea that has made them allies by default. Easing the Hanoi government’s abuse of its own people must be a condition of access to American weapons.

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