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Obama Removes Decades-Old Ban On Weapon Sales To Vietnam


In Hanoi today, President Obama removed a decades-old ban on weapons sales to Vietnam.


BARACK OBAMA: 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.

SHAPIRO: He says this move underscores the U.S. commitment to Vietnam and the region for the long term. In the past decade, neighboring China has become more aggressive in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, the U.S. has put more military resources into Asia. I spoke with Sandy Pho, a China expert at the Wilson Center, about the significance of today's gesture to Washington, Hanoi and Beijing.

SANDY PHO: The U.S. relationship with Vietnam as a whole - and with that comes this ban - is part of the rebalance as a whole. And I will say that the rebalance is not aimed at China, but that the rise of China is one of the single biggest factors to cause the United States to realize how many of our interests are in the Asia Pacific.

SHAPIRO: When you refer to the rebalance, you mean the larger Obama administration project to focus American resources on Asia.

PHO: Correct.

SHAPIRO: Vietnam's president today said the decision to lift the ban was not based on China. Why would he say that when so much of the evidence seems to point to the contrary?

PHO: Vietnamese-Chinese relations - it's a long history of shared culture, but they also have a long history of conflict. They don't want to poke the bear in the eye because they understand that they have to live with China, right? They can't get rid of it. And China has been in some ways a responsible partner to them with the aid and their trade relations and interactions, party-to-party, and education. So I don't think - Vietnam understands that if it does anything to aggravate their neighbor, their - the person that's right behind their doors, it's not good for anybody.

SHAPIRO: So on the one hand, Vietnam really wants to be able to defend itself. But on the other hand, Vietnam doesn't want to look like it's arming itself against its good friend China, who's much bigger and right next door.

PHO: Well, exactly. Would you? (Laughter) You want to play - you want to be stealthy. And, I mean, there's also - you know, the big story is Vietnam and the United States. Vietnam is strengthening relations with a lot of different Asian partners - you know, India, Japan. They are going, you know, around and making sure that they're spreading their seeds and make sure...

SHAPIRO: ...And the U.S. wants to be in the mix. And this is part of that?

PHO: Exactly. I mean, the U.S. always wants to be in the mix (laughter).

SHAPIRO: It sounds like it's a game of tug-of-war between the United States and China with Vietnam in the middle.

PHO: It definitely is. And this is, I think, for the bulk of southeast Asia. Countries that don't have the luxury of being a large country, the last thing that they want is to be put in a position where they have to choose between the United States and China.

SHAPIRO: How has China reacted to this U.S. move today?

PHO: So if you actually - the Foreign Ministry's spokeswoman, she came out with a statement. And it was fairly benign. It was not foaming at the mouth. She said that China hopes that this relationship will contribute to regional stability. No red flags, really. I think more than anything, China is in a wait and see mode. They understand that the United States has its interests in strengthening its relationship with Vietnam. But China and Vietnam have a robust relationship, and I think China is confident in that.

SHAPIRO: Sandy Pho of the Wilson Center. Thanks so much for joining us.

PHO: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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