The US and Russia are now competitors for Vietnam’s hearts and minds, as the US lifted its arms embargo and launched new ‘soft power’ initiatives. The United States’ act was a message to China, which it is working to counter in an area where the latter has achieved near-hegemony.
It is a safe assumption to say that after the repeal of the US arms embargo, Vietnam will shift from Russian to US weapon imports. One of the things that countries like Vietnam learned from Indonesia’s past experience (when the US embargoed arm exports and ceased to sell spare parts of its military products to Indonesian Armed Forces during the last years of the New Order era) is to never depend on one country in your arms capability. In the case of Vietnam, the shift will not be radical as in completely turning to the US for its arsenals.
So, the competition in arm selling in Vietnam will be tighter between Russia and the US, especially after the US adds another tactic to complement their strategy to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people and government through its soft diplomacy. During his visit to Vietnam, President Obama stated that the American Peace Corps, the U.S. government service organization, will work in Vietnam. The impact remains to be seen, but I believe that it will contribute positively to the US’s building and protecting its interests in Vietnam in the future. Consequently, the Russia will need to work harder in competing with the US to gain sympathy and preference from Vietnamese government and people.
It is true that the US decision is part of a strategy to contain China, considering that Vietnam has openly expressed its dissatisfaction about China’s claim over the South China Sea. While Vietnam’s military capability will not match China’s might, the US’ military support for Vietnam’s can send a message to China that Vietnam means business in protecting its interests in South China Sea.
Even without Vietnam’s new access to military support from the US, the situation in the South China Sea has already been escalating. The military approach that China and the Philippines/US have taken is an indication that the US needs another player to challenge China’s hegemony in the area. The issue of military usage in the South China Sea issue clearly concerns many parties.
During the G7 Summit Outreach Meeting in Ise-Shima, Japan on May 27, Indonesian President Joko Widodo stated that all areas with a high potential of conflict in Asia, such as South China Sea and Korean Peninsula should be managed well. He further insisted that peaceful resolution be prioritized because a military approach and use of violence will only prolong the conflict and potentially create other problems, such as extremism and humanitarian crises.
With the new revelation from President Obama, Vietnam will be more confident in protecting its interests through its foreign policy. The support from the US will boost their confidence, especially in dealing with China. However, with Obama also bringing the issue of freedom of speech and democracy, the opposition to the Vietnamese government might have new moral supports in their struggle to demand changes in Vietnam’s domestic political and social affairs.