Obama Lifts Embargo on Vietnam Arms, Sparks Fury from China

President Obama made a high-profile trip this week, visiting Vietnam for the first time. During his visit, he announced that the U.S. will be lifting a long-standing embargo on lethal arms sales in the country.

The president’s announcement Monday sparked fury from another communist nation, China. In fact, China warned Obama Tuesday “not to start a fire in Asia”. While Obama insisted that the historic move was “not based on China”, he also simultaneously acknowledged that the U.S. and Vietnam share a common concern about China’s on-going actions in the South China Sea.

The South China Sea has been a hot-button issue this year, with China at the center of the conflict. The power-nation is seen internationally as over-reaching its authority in the area, causing angst among world leaders about what may occur as the tension rises.

The dispute surrounding claim to the cluster of islands in the South China Sea has complicated the already precarious relationship between China and Vietnam; while the two countries are united in their communist ideology and loathing for Western democracy, they are historic enemies (fighting their latest border war in 1979) and this new conflict is adding to that strain.

President Obama’s announcement, therefore, has unsurprisingly agitated the Chinese government. Its state-run newspaper, China Daily, published an article Tuesday warning that the United States and Vietnam must not spark a “regional tinderbox” as well as voicing deep concerns that Obama’s move was meant to “curb the rise of China”.

“This, if true, bodes ill for regional peace and stability,” the paper said.

Another Chinese Communist Party paper, the Global Times, slanders the U.S. President. The tabloid called President Obama’s claim that this political move was not aimed at China “a very poor lie,” adding that his lifting the embargo would inflame the “strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing.”

“While not an official mouthpiece, the Global Times nevertheless often represents a strain of nationalist thinking within the ruling Communist Party. It accused Washington of trying to knit three nets around China — in ideology, in security and in economy and trade—in an attempt to secure its dominance of the region,” The Washington Post reports.

The defamatory nationalist tabloid also contained an implied accusation that there was some hypocrisy in Obama’s move to a buddy-buddy relationship with communist Vietnam. “When the U.S. has an urgent need to contain China in the South China Sea, the standards of its so-called human rights can be relaxed,” it remarked.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived to Vietnam’s former southern capital Ho Chi Minh City after Obama, reiterating the president’s insistence that the foreign relations move was not backhandedly directed at China. Rather, it was about promoting a “rule-based order” in the fastest growing market in the world, Kerry said.

“If you want to point to the possibility of tinderbox and possibly igniting something, I would caution China, as President Obama and others have, to not unilaterally move to reclamation activities and the militarization of the islands and areas that are part of the claims being contested today,” he told reporters.

“We don’t take a position on those claims. China should note that. We are not saying China is wrong in the claims. We are simply saying, ‘Resolve it peacefully; resolve it in the rules-based order.’ ”

He further maintained that relaxing an “out of the ordinary” arms embargo was neither out of order nor seditious. “I hope China will read this correctly.”

Unfortunately, China read it incorrectly.

According to The Washington Post, experts in mainland China said they expected that U.S. warships would sooner or later be granted access to Cam Ranh Bay, a Vietnamese port that served as a crucial U.S. naval base during the Vietnam War.  

Professor in international relations at Renmin University of China, Shi Yinhong, put his expert two-cents in, saying Beijing would not respond in a vengeful manner, but would counterattack more roundabout by continuing to build its military power in the South China Sea, while increasingly placing pressure on Hanoi not to draw too close to Washington.  

“China will try to cozy up to Vietnam but at the same time put pressure on it,” he said.

Meanwhile, many Chinese people are turning to social media to express their anger on the matter. One internet user snarkily remarked, “It looks like Vietnam is going to be America’s new puppet…Vietnam needs to give serious consideration to inviting the wolf into the house.”

“The U.S. is walking an arms race path. China can wait until the enemy is exhausted,” another netizen wrote.