Competition between the United States and China over control of the South China Sea took center stage this week as President Obama opened up Vietnam to greater U.S. arms sales while China’s military intelligence chief met with a senior Russian general.
Obama announced that the United States is fully lifting a 41-year arms embargo against Vietnam, which has been locked in a dispute with China over control of the Paracel Islands.
The closer U.S.-Vietnam defense cooperation will include patrol boats and training for Vietnam’s coast guard that has been increasingly challenged in protecting Vietnamese fisherman by Chinese maritime law enforcement forces.
"Big nations should not bully smaller ones," Obama said in an indirect reference to China’s maritime disputes in the region.
China’s Communist Party-controlled newspaper Global Times stated in an editorial that ending the arms embargo is part of a U.S. policy to contain China.
In Beijing on Tuesday, China’s most senior military intelligence official, Adm. Sun Jianguo, held talks with Russia’s deputy chief of the general staff, Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy. The meeting between the two military leaders highlights what analysts say is a growing anti-U.S. alliance between Moscow and Beijing.
The Pentagon had no immediate comment on what weapons will be offered to Vietnam, a communist state that defeated the United States in the Vietnam War after taking over South Vietnam in 1975.
Increased U.S. military aid as part of the Pentagon’s Asia maritime security initiative will total $425 million in military aid over five years. Hanoi will also be provided with 18 MetalShark 45-foot patrol boats.
The lifting of the arms embargo, which has been loosened twice in the past, will provide Vietnam with "greater access to the equipment you need to improve your security," the president said.
Later at a press conference in Hanoi, the president appeared to deny the closer ties as a hedge against China, telling reporters "the decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations."
Defense officials said the comment sent a mixed message to U.S. allies in Asia worried about U.S. commitment to Asian security. These allies have sought clear leadership from the United States in pushing back against Chinese encroachment in Asia.
Vietnam, for its part, responded this week by announcing VietJet Aviation would purchase 100 Boeing 737 jets worth an estimated $11.3 billion.
The increased trade with Vietnam is part of the Obama administration’s rebalance to Asia that seeks to counter what many analysts say is a creeping takeover of the South China Sea by China through the buildup of small islands and the deployment of military forces on them.
Future defense alignment could include U.S. warship visits to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay.
"This visit represents a positive effort to sustain the administration’s faltering ‘rebalance to the Pacific’ policy," said retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief.
The closer ties are a welcome signal that demonstrate "an appreciation of the vital necessity of the United States’ alliance network to counter China’s unilateral expansionism," Fanell said.
"In addition to the opening of arms sales to Hanoi, one would hope that similar efforts are being applied to all of our allies and friends across the Indo-Asia Pacific region," he added.
The defense analysis firm IHS Jane’s said the lifting of the arms embargo signals that Vietnam will shed Moscow’s influence.
Likely arms sales could include U.S. aerospace platforms and systems that would modernize the Vietnamese armed forces.
"There are no official statements from Vietnam about its military requirements," Jane’s analysts Jon Grevatt and Paul Burton stated. "But IHS analysis suggests that Vietnam’s requirements include maritime-security capabilities such as maritime patrol aircraft, coastal radars, and naval craft including coastal patrol vessels."
Other potential military sales could include P-3 maritime patrol aircraft and coastal defense radar systems.
Most of the arms will probably be purchased from excess U.S. military stocks.
Vietnam is expected to spend around $1.6 billion on defense systems this year, with a major focus on upgrading communications and surveillance systems.
Former State Department official John Tkacik said China and Vietnam historically have been strategic competitors. During the Cold War, Beijing regarded its neighbor as a pro-Soviet puppet and part of Moscow’s policy of containing China.
China urged the United States as early as 1972 not to lose the war in Vietnam and to remain in Southeast Asia. Seven years later, China privately notified Washington of its plans to invade Vietnam. The United States exploited the invasion to out-negotiate China in normalization talks by continuing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
Now, Vietnam's leaders, having read accounts of the internal U.S.-China discussions in American leaders’ memoirs, "no doubt find it delightful to turn the American tables on China," Tkacik said.
"It just goes to show, Lord Palmerston's dictum about ‘no permanent friends, only permanent interests,’ remains the focal point of international relations," he said.
Few details of the China-Russia military talks were made public. The Chinese Defense Ministry said the "sides exchanged their opinions on international and regional situation in the sphere of security, military reforms, as well as cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries, and achieved broad consensus."
Sun said defense cooperation is increasing. "In order to contribute to development of Russian-Chinese relations of strategic partnership, China wants to constantly uncover the potential of cooperation together with Russia, expand cooperation spheres and deepen strategic trust," Sun said, according to the Russia’s state-run TASS news agency.
Rudskoy praised what he termed wide-ranging defense cooperation between the two states.
"The consensus reached during this round of strategic dialogue will leads to gradual increase in the level of cooperation between the armed forces of the two countries, which will give a new impetus to development of Russian-Chinese relations in general," Rudskoy said.
The comments came as the Air Force’s most senior combat general warned about the increasing aggressiveness of both Russian and Chinese warplanes.
"Our concern is a resurgent Russia and a very, very aggressive China," Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of the Air Combat Command, told USA Today.
Russia and China both seek to drive the United States out of their respective regions, Carlisle said.
"Their intent is to get us not to be there," Carlisle said. "So that the influence in those international spaces is controlled only by them. My belief is that we cannot allow that to happen. We have to continue to operate legally in international airspace and international waterways. We have to continue to call them out when they are being aggressive and unsafe."
The general said he is concerned China will impose an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea in an attempt to control the airspace.
"Their expansion into the Paracels and the Spratlys [in the southern South China Sea] is so they can declare it and then have the capability to enforce it, where they can do intercepts," Carlisle said. "They are doing it outside of what could be considered the norms."
Sun, the PLA military intelligence chief, has been an outspoken critic of the United States. He reacted to the 2014 U.S. indictment of five People’s Liberation Army hackers by stating that the United States was the world’s biggest cyber thief.
"The U.S. said arrogantly that it is a common practice for various countries to steal military and political intelligence, whereas it is illegal to obtain the commercial secrets. It is absolutely ridiculous. Aren't military and political secrets more important for a country's existence and security than commercial ones?" Sun said in reference to the indictment.
Sun is expected to lose some power as intelligence chief during the PLA reorganization announced in December, as regional military intelligence units are consolidated.
Sun is a native of China’s Hebei region, where Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping began his Communist Party career. China’s civilian spy chief, Geng Huichang, is also from Hebei.