On May 24, the United States made a diplomatic move in the Asia–Pacific region that strengthens the growing coalition against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), deepens U.S. influence in the region, and expands the number of nations around China that are shifting away from pacifism and inaction.
The CCP’s response was to welcome the move, and declare it a healthy development for the world.
If that response seems uncharacteristic of the CCP, you’re right, but only because its interests rest much deeper.
The move in discussion is President Barack Obama’s lifting of the decades-old arms embargo on Vietnam. He met with Vietnamese leader Tran Dai Quang and declared, according to The Associated Press, “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.”
In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, according to a transcript, that China is “happy to see Vietnam develop normal relations with all countries, including the U.S.”
With the CCP, all of its responses—whether through its Foreign Ministry spokesperson or its state-run news outlets—are going to be tightly regulated, and with something on this scale, also tightly calculated.
What’s interesting about this development is that the CCP seems to have assessed that it’s more in its interest to feign support for the development than to criticize it. And its likely interest is the potential that this could act as a springboard for it to begin lobbying the United States and the European Union to lift similar arms embargoes on China—which were set in place after its Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Vietnam’s poor human rights record has been one of the deal’s main points of criticism, and the fact that Obama went ahead with the deal despite this likely has some Chinese leaders rubbing their hands together.
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The Chinese regime pushes an ideology in its form of diplomacy that human rights shouldn’t get in the way of politics. This policy has enabled it to forge alliances with some of the world’s most despotic regimes, and to build its own bloc of influence with countries the United States and European Union refuse to deal with.
This factor has brought strong criticism onto the CCP, since its support of countries like North Korea allows totalitarian regimes to sustain themselves when they would otherwise very likely collapse.
Of course, Vietnam isn’t as bad as North Korea, but it is run by a communist one-party government, and it also has some of the same human rights abuses as other communist states. According to a freedom ranking of countries by Freedom House, Vietnam scored 20 out of 100 with being the least free. It notes that Vietnam has almost no political freedom and few civil liberties.
What’s interesting about China’s response to the new deal is that its propaganda thinkers have apparently assessed that the benefit of a muted response outweighs the benefit of criticism—particularly since this will likely shift the tides further against its favor in the Asia–Pacific region.
The deal itself is more symbolic than anything. Its main impact will likely be much less on Vietnam’s military strength and much more on how Vietnam is perceived globally.
Vietnam was already buying military vehicles and equipment from Russia, and the shift in U.S. stance is unlikely to make Vietnam much more of a military threat to China than it already is. Vietnam has more military personnel than the United States, with close to half a million in active service and a reserve force of three million.
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But if recent history tells us anything, the CCP does view this new deal as a threat and is holding its tongue. When the United States began lifting its arms embargo on Vietnam in 2014, the CCP’s state-run People’s Daily criticized the deal and accused the United States of interfering with the “balance of power in the region.”
The “balance of power in the region” is what this new deal will likely impact most. What it changes is how the United States views Vietnam, and it may help Vietnamese diplomacy with other nations as well. As Japan Times reported, it will reduce the “political sensitivity” that nations would otherwise face when strengthening ties with Vietnam.

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MANILA, Philippines—With a towering warship behind him, President Barack Obama announced Tuesday that the U.S. will hand over two ships to the Philippine Navy to boost its maritime security capabilities, in a bid to show the U.S. and its allies won’t be cowed by China in disputed waters far off its coast.

Obama said the pair of ships — one U.S. Coast Guard cutter, one research vessel — were part of a broader American plan to scale up assistance to naval forces in Southeast Asia, where coastal nations feel threatened by China’s aggressive moves to assert control over the South China Sea. Obama said the U.S. had an “ironclad commitment” to the Philippines — a U.S. treaty ally — and a mutual commitment to free and safe navigation at sea.
“More capable navies, in partnership with the United States, are critical to the security of this region,” Obama said as he opened a six-day tour of the Philippines and Malaysia. He said the ships would help the Philippines navigate and patrol its territorial waters.
Obama never mentioned China by name as he stood in front of the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a onetime U.S.-owned frigate, but the intended recipient of his message was clear. As regional tensions with China have simmered in recent years, the U.S. has sought out symbolic ways to counter Beijing’s claims in the region without putting itself in direct confrontation with the powerhouse nation.
Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter boarded a U.S. aircraft carrier plodding through the South China Sea, a week after a U.S. Navy destroyer patrolled within seven miles of a reef where China is building an artificial island and has asserted a 12-mile territorial boundary. The U.S. has refused to comply with China’s self-proclaimed air defense zone over the nearby East China Sea.
Obama’s announcement came at the start of his ninth trip to Asia, and this one, like the others, was designed to illustrate his efforts to strengthen alliances as part of his seven-year campaign to increase U.S. influence in Asia.
“You can count on the United States,” the president said.
During back-to-back summits in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, Obama planned a particular focus on touting the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the U.S. recently struck with 11 other nations — China not included. The sweeping free trade agreement is at the heart of Obama’s Asia policy, but its prospects for ratification by U.S. lawmakers remain uncertain.
Flanked by U.S. and Philippine troops, Obama said he would seek to provide another $140 million in maritime security aid to Southeast Asia next year, although it was unclear whether Congress would approve those funds.
The Philippine government’s eagerness for more muscular U.S. military assistance here illustrates how concerns about China appear to have superseded the nation’s resentment of its former colonial master and its reluctance to give U.S. troops free reign. Yet while Obama’s commitments fall short of what some countries in the region have sought, not all of that is Obama’s doing.
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On his last trip here, in 2014, Obama signed a defense cooperation pact allowing the U.S. to base troops temporarily at some military camps, but a legal challenge has delayed implementation. Although the country’s pallid military has struggled to push back effectively against China, the Philippine constitution bars permanent U.S. bases.
Six Asian countries assert overlapping claims to parts of the South China Sea, and Beijing is locked in a parallel dispute with Japan and South Korea over the East China Sea. China views control of the waters, with their abundant underwater oil deposits and strategic shipping lanes, as key to its rise as a major economic and military power.
China’s ongoing march in contested waters has become a major tension point with the U.S., joining cyber-spying, human rights and trade disputes. Still, Obama has sought to foster a productive relationship with China, striking major deals with Beijing over climate change.
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Yet, Obama’s desired emphasis on U.S.-Asia ties is being overshadowed by global hand-wringing over the Islamic State group’s ghastly attacks in Paris. Meeting Tuesday with Australia’s new prime minister, Obama called for better outreach to Muslim communities to prevent radicalization.
“We will continue shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. and our allies in the fight against this type of extremist violence,” said Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

 

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