With the announcement that an arms embargo between the United States and Vietnam has been lifted, the war against Vietnam is truly, finally over.
It's also a reminder that our ill-advised incursion in Southeast Asia was a result of failed colonialist policies and that we should never have interfered 50 years ago in that civil war. The United States has been wearing the legacy of Vietnam like an albatross around its neck, and not only for the disgraceful way the nation treated, and continues to treat, the veterans who went to fight what might have been the final imperialist war of the Colonial Period. Most of us can't even comprehend the sorrow the families of the nearly 60,000 dead soldiers live with every day, especially when you consider the futility of the battles they were asked to fight and die in.
And then there is to be considered the destruction left behind by the war, which the residents of Vietnam are still dealing with to this day; not just unexploded ordnance but also Agent Orange, which also has affected the health of thousands of Americans who were exposed to the defoliant during the war.
In the past seven years, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and others in Congress with a conscience have been authorizing funding to help clean up contamination from Agent Orange and help those afflicted with disabilities and illness from its use. "The U.S. military's use of Agent Orange long was a source of anger and resentment, but because of these efforts it has become an issue that both governments are working together to address."
But, other than a history lesson, the lifting of the embargo is a sign that tension between China and its neighbors that share the South China Sea is increasing and no one really knows what to do about it except be prepared for the worse-case scenario — some sort of military conflict.
"Lifting the ban on arms sales to Vietnam further demonstrates that the United States is a reliable partner, and it sends a not too subtle message to China at a time when it is threatening regional stability in the South China Sea," stated Leahy, adding the decision "should not open the floodgates for sales of lethal equipment," especially considering Vietnam's policies regarding freedom of expression and other human rights.
Anita Kumar, writing for McClatchy, said Vietnam has a "dismal record on human rights," that includes religious discrimination, political exclusion and oppressive surveillance. During last week's visit to Vietnam, Pres. Barack Obama chided Vietnam for its "modest progress" on human rights.
"We will continue to speak out on behalf of human rights that we believe are universal, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly and that includes the right of citizens, through civil society, to organize and help improve their communities and their country," he said. "I believe that nations are stronger and more prosperous when these universal rights are upheld."
It would be disingenuous for anyone to suggest the United States shouldn't sell weapons to nations that abuse their own citizens. It's been going on for years and years and we don't have enough space here to list all the repulsive regimes our leaders have felt it necessary with whom to have some sort of relationship.
While Vietnam is nominally communist, its relationship with its northern neighbor, China, is a history of invasion and occupation. Presently, China has laid claim to areas of the waters bordering its shores, raising consternation in Japan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and, of course, Vietnam. China's self-proclaimed two-hundred-mile exclusive economic zone affects a region through which $5.3 trillion of trade passes through each year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. U.S. trade accounts for $1.2 trillion of this total.
While the United States should work with China to decrease tensions, noted the CFR, it should also "bolster" the military capabilities with is allies in the region. However, noted the CFR, "Such measures run the risk of emboldening the Philippines and Vietnam to more assertively challenge China and could raise those countries' expectations of U.S. assistance in a crisis."
There is no easy solution to this slow-burning crisis, but reopening relations with Vietnam not only signals to China that we will protect free trade in the South China Sea. It also lets the Vietnamese know that, unlike the past 50 years, perhaps now is the time to make amends.