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Vietnam’s Deputy PM Calls for End to US Arms Embargo

FILE - Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh speaks during a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Hanoi, Dec. 16, 2013.
FILE - Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh speaks during a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Hanoi, Dec. 16, 2013.

Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh says, nearly 20 years after the two countries normalized relations, it is time to end what he calls the "abnormal" U.S. arms embargo on its former enemy. Minh, in a rare foreign policy statement, also warned the Asia-Pacific region faces an unprecedented risk of military conflict over territorial disputes.

Speaking in New York Wednesday at the Asia Society on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session, Minh says, in light of last year’s Comprehensive Partnership agreement, bilateral relations between Washington and Hanoi are normal.

"…and the ban on lethal weapons to Vietnam is abnormal, so we [should] lift the ban meaning that the relationship is normal," he said.

Asked if lifting the ban might anger China, Minh responded "No."

"If we do not buy weapons from the United States, we still buy [weapons] from other countries. So, why should China be bothered by that?" he asked.

Senior Obama administration officials are quoted as saying discussions on easing the embargo are taking place in Washington and could result in a decision by the end of the year.

Nearing end?

Centers for Strategic and International Studies China expert Bonnie Glaser, who attended Minh’s address, says she believes an end to the embargo is near.

"There is support from key members of Congress. There is a sense in the executive branch that this is a legacy of the past period in US/Vietnamese relations, that it’s time to normalize that particular aspect of the US/Vietnam relationship, and from the remarks of the deputy prime minister that he, too, seemed to think that this would simply signify movement away from what has been an abnormal to a more normal relationship," said Glaser.

She says his comment about China’s potential objection suggests Hanoi would be able to withstand criticism from Beijing and not be worried about it. She says such weapons would enhance "maritime domain awareness," giving Vietnam the ability to know what’s going on in its exclusive economic zone and its airspace.

Minh warned "strategic distrust" among major powers is rising and the security environment has worsened as a result of what he calls ‘unchecked unilateralism,’ military modernization, an arms buildup, as well as maritime and territorial disputes.

"Never before have we seen a greater risk for miscalculation and incidents that might escalate into military conflicts, as in the past few months," he said.

Regional territorial conflicts

The Vietnamese official says the Asia-Pacific region should be one of peace and dynamic development where international law and regional codes of conduct are respected.

Although major powers should bear the greatest responsibility for peace and security in the region, Minh says Vietnam can contribute through greater economic reform and playing a more pro-active role within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN.

"And, Vietnam will be more responsible to ASEAN, and Vietnam will also join other ASEAN members to make sure that ASEAN will be at the center of the Asia-Pacific security architecture," he said.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Southeast Asia analyst Vikram Nehru, who also attended the meeting, says Minh acknowledged, despite Vietnam’s close political and economic ties with China, Hanoi’s dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea remains a serious irritant.

"And, what he wanted to make sure was that the resolution of the South China Sea problem should be through the use of international law, should be through peaceful means and should be done in a way that is multilateral in nature," said Nehru.

City University of Hong Kong Vietnam analyst Jonathan London says, by promoting a peaceful resolution of its territorial disputes with China through ASEAN, Hanoi is not just trying to manage an extraordinarily complicated situation, but it is also underscoring its refusal to be subject to external pressures.