SHANGHAI — An official Chinese newspaper has criticized the Obama administration’s decision to lift the U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam, which had been in place since the end of the war between the two countries in 1975. The Global Times said in an editorial Tuesday that the move was targeted at China, and aimed at "stirring up" Vietnam’s opposition to China’s reclamation of islands in waters in the South China Sea, also claimed by Hanoi. It accused President Barack Obama of concealing his true motivation, and of double standards, saying he had relaxed the U.S.'s human rights criteria for arms sales out of political motives.
The comments from the hawkish tabloid published by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily go further than those made by China’s foreign ministry, which said Monday that it hoped any arms sales would not undermine regional stability. But they echo the views of military experts in China, who are alarmed at what they see as a threat from the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia.”
After announcing the lifting of the embargo in Hanoi Monday, President Obama told reporters that the decision “was not based on China or any other considerations” but on a desire to complete the process of “normalization with Vietnam.” At the same time, he noted that Washington and Hanoi shared concerns about the “importance of maintaining freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” and added that such disputes should be resolved on the basis of “international norms” and “not based on who’s the bigger party and can throw around their weight a little bit more” — a comment observers said was a clear reference to Beijing’s increasingly assertive policy in the disputed maritime region over the past two years.
The Global Times said Obama’s denial that China was the target was a “very poor lie which reveals the truth.” It said Washington was “taking advantage of Vietnam to stir up more trouble in the South China Sea,” and the move would exacerbate “strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing.”
The paper also accused Washington of applying double standards in selling arms to a nation that it has frequently criticized for human rights abuses. President Obama said in Hanoi that arms sales would “need to still meet strict requirements, including those related to human rights.,” but also said, "this change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself.” The Global Times said this showed that “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.”
And it said the move was designed to boost the U.S. “rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific,” something that has stirred anxiety in Beijing. China's worries about Washington’s aims in the region have been fuelled by growing tensions between the two countries over the South China Sea in recent months. On several occasions, the U.S. military has sent its ships and aircraft into exclusion zones claimed by China around the disputed reefs, in an attempt to prove that these lie in international waters – and Obama said in Hanoi that such missions would continue. In the most recent case last week, the U.S. said two Chinese fighters had flown dangerously close to a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft overflying the region – while China accused Washington of dangerous actions that increased the risk of confrontation.
The Global Times argued Tuesday that it was unlikely that Vietnam, with its previous dependence on Russian weaponry, would switch systems overnight or “import substantial quantities of weapons from the U.S. for the moment.” But it said the lifting of the embargo nevertheless had “great symbolic significance,” not least in “increasing trust between Washington and Hanoi.” And it said it was possible that the U.S. would sell Vietnam a certain amount of “lethal maritime weaponry” in the short term, thus involving it in what it called “the U.S. dominated regional security system.”
Some experts say Vietnam is seeking radar and communications and intelligence technology from the U.S., along with drones and possibly surveillance aircraft, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported Tuesday.
The Global Times said in an earlier editorial Monday that it did not believe there could be a true “U.S. - Vietnamese alliance” due to the two countries’ ideological differences. It said that Vietnam knew it had to be careful in balancing ties with Washington against its links with Beijing, and argued that Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party owed much of its legitimacy to the “stability and prosperity” of its larger Communist neighbor. The paper also noted that, despite a dispute between Hanoi and Beijing after China began building an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam in 2014, Hanoi has not followed the Philippines in shrilly denouncing China’s island reclamations in the South China Sea.
Nonetheless, relations between China and Vietnam have remained relatively frosty since 1979, when China briefly invaded northern Vietnam to punish its neighbor for overthrowing the Chinese backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. And China remains suspicious of any U.S. moves that could boost its presence in the region – Beijing has already criticized U.S. plans to use military bases in the Philippines and Australia in recent months.
One Chinese academic, Xu Liping of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the lifting of the embargo would “embolden Vietnam to take steps to counter China’s claims in maritime disputes. It won’t do any good to help ease the tensions in the region,” he told the South China Morning Post.
The Global Times also said China should be wary of attempts by the U.S. to build on warmer ties with southeast Asian nations like Vietnam to “reconstruct” the international manufacturing chain, based on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Vietnam signed up to at its unveiling last year. The paper noted Vietnam’s success in moving away from cheap manufacturing to being a “main production nation of cellphone parts,” and said Beijing needed to focus on “how to consolidate China’s current status in the global production chain,” something it said would affect the country’s “future position in Asia.”
Despite its official status, the Global Times does not always speak for China’s government – its editor has reportedly been criticized in recent weeks for taking too harsh a line on Donald Trump and for publishing a survey saying many Chinese wanted the government to retake Taiwan by force. But the paper is one of China’s biggest-selling newspapers, according to official statistics, and its views often reflect those of more hawkish members of China’s establishment. And analysts say in this case they are likely to reflect the current climate of suspicion of the U.S. in China’s official circles.
The Global Times’ warnings about manufacturing also echo those made last week by China’s ministry of commerce, which said the country needed to take steps to prevent manufacturers closing factories in southeastern China, where labor and other costs have risen sharply, and relocating to countries in Southeast Asia, notably Vietnam and Cambodia, and Bangladesh. The ministry said they should be given incentives to move to cheaper inland areas of China instead.