International Legal Affairs: V8N5

US Arms Policy Against Vietnam: History, past, present, and future.

On May 23, 2016, President Obama announced lifting a nearly 50-year old arms embargo against Vietnam. President Obama, joined by Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang made the following statement:

“As with all our defense partners, sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those related to human rights. But this change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and removes a lingering vestige of the Cold War. It also underscores the commitment of the United States to a fully normalized relationship with Vietnam, including strong defense ties with Vietnam and this region for the long term.”

Clearly, the relationship between the two countries has come a long way since the end of direct US involvement in Vietnam on August 15, 1973 (continuing until April 30, 1975).

In the 1970’s following the US involvement in the Vietnam War, Congress enacted reforms barring the sale of arms to Vietnam. As with almost all laws, there were exceptions to the ban. If the President (or more accurately, the U.S. State Department) could identify a situation where the sale of arms to Vietnam was vital to U.S. national security, an exception to the ban could be made. As time passed and the wounds of the Vietnam War healed, exceptions were more freely given, and by some accounts, were becoming fairly commonplace.

Diplomatic ties between the US and Vietnam were re-established under President Clinton in 1995. In 2007, the U.S. modified the arms embargo against Vietnam to allow the sale of non-lethal equipment to Vietnam on a case-by-case basis. In November 2014, the embargo was lifted to permit exports to Vietnam of non-lethal defense articles and lethal weapons “to enhance maritime security capabilities and domain awareness.” As with prior exceptions, applications for such exports were considered on a case-by-case basis. By some reports, the US has authorized as much as $46 Million dollars to strengthen Vietnam’s maritime security forces. Most recently, in December 2015, the U.S. Government announced the sale of five unarmed patrol boats to the Vietnamese Coast Guard.

Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, hundreds of millions (and in some cases, billions) of dollars of arms were sold to Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries with questionable human rights records. All of a sudden, the basis for the arms embargo against Vietnam – ostensibly, human rights – no longer seemed viable or legitimate. Further adding to the calculus was the increased level and pace of U.S. foreign investment in Vietnam over the past 20 years, Vietnam’s genuine need for specific weapons for maritime defense, and a growing relationship with the U.S. Navy. In light of all these factors, some argue that continuing the embargo seems shortsighted and arbitrary.

The basis for the arms embargo focused on human rights; concerns about human rights in Vietnam remain and linger even in the present. In announcing the end of the embargo, President Obama said that any future arms sales would need to meet strict requirements “including those related to human rights.” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for the group Human Rights Watch, is critical of the decision. “Obama has jettisoned what remained of US leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam – and basically gotten nothing for it,” he said. “The United States government has been telling the Vietnam government for years that they need to show progress on their human rights record if they are going to be rewarded with closer military and economic ties. Yet today President Obama has rewarded Vietnam even though they have not done anything of note.”

Of course, the elephant in the room is Vietnam’s former ally, and northern neighbor, the People’s Republic of China. As Beijing continues to assert territorial claims throughout the South China Sea, a policy shift by the U.S. seems to place more importance on bettering the relationship and increasing security ties, rather than try to press for additional reform in the human rights arena. By some estimates, China controls upwards of 80% of the South China Sea – one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

In the short-term, it seems unlikely that Vietnam will make large purchases of US-made defense articles. Although Vietnam has a significant military acquisition budget, the cost of U.S.-made defense articles are simply too expensive and overly sophisticated as direct replacements for its antiquated Russian technology. Future purchases are likely to continue within the realm of maritime defense, surveillance and coastal defense systems.

If anything, lifting of the arms embargo should teach those in the arms industry to “never say never.” Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, it seemed like an arms embargo would never be lifted. As tensions have eased and wounds healed, the restrictions have gradually been lifted, leading to the end of all restrictions. The end result of lifting the arms embargo against Vietnam and any a future relationship with Vietnam, China and all other Asian countries remains to be seen.

Mr. Wong is a Washington licensed attorney. He regularly provides legal counsel to the firearm and defense industry via his law firm, The Firearms Law Group. Mr. Wong also manages Hurricane Butterfly, an import/export company that assists firearm manufacturers, resellers, and collectors from around the world wade through the regulatory quagmire of U.S. import/export regulations. He may be found online at

The preceding article is not intended as legal advice, and should not be taken as legal advice. If the reader has specific legal questions, seek competent legal counsel.