Obama Lifts Arms Embargo on Vietnam: setting aside history to look towards the future

It has been announced, rather unsurprisingly it must be said, that the USA is to fully lift an historic arms embargo on Vietnam.  Speaking in Hanoi, President Obama declared that America could once more sell lethal weapons to the Vietnamese, in the process removing a ‘lingering vestige of the Cold War’.

President Obama with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong Source: CNN
President Obama with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong
Source: CNN

More than 58,000 US soldiers died during the Vietnam War and yet their sacrifice did not prevent a communist takeover of the southern part of the country. It is the descendants of Ho Chi Minh and his comrades that continue to rule Vietnam in a decidedly authoritarian manner, a confirmation of one of the greatest failures of American interventionism.

Obama’s decision is likely to provoke complaints from Vietnam war veterans, just as his slated visit to Hiroshima has drawn the ire of survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The Vietnam War continues to exercise a powerful hold over the American soul, a psychological wound that, despite its longevity, is unlikely to be mirrored by the War in Afghanistan.

The humiliating failure of the Vietnam War - and the lives it cost - have helped ingrain it in the minds of successive generations of Americans Source: CNN
The humiliating failure of the Vietnam War – and the lives it cost – have helped ingrain it in the minds of successive generations of Americans
Source: CNN

The timing of the decision is understandable. China continues to act with increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, threatening American geostrategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. As another claimant in the complex territorial dispute that dominates this part of the world, Vietnam could act as a contributory balancing partner for Washington should events turn sour.

There is also the added factor of Russia, once more a serious global rival to the USA. As a result of the Soviet legacy, Moscow is still the chief supplier of arms to Vietnam. The Americans can disrupt, if not entirely supplant, this profitable flow of capital into the Kremlin’s vaults.

Many of President Obama’s critics, and even some of his supporters, have found serious fault with his foreign policy. In particular, his apparent desire to appease all of America’s enemies, both past and present, has not always been well received. Perhaps he does not fully appreciate the significance of American history and its ramifications for generations of its citizens? Or so the argument goes.

Obama's desperation to push through a nuclear deal with Iran - despite the legacy of the Iranian Revolution and the Tehran hostage crisis, not to mention the Islamic Republic's constant America-bashing - infuriated millions
Obama’s desperation to push through a nuclear deal with Iran – despite the legacy of the Iranian Revolution and the Tehran hostage crisis, not to mention the Islamic Republic’s constant America-bashing – infuriated millions

This blog has frequently argued that history should not be an impediment to the future, though unfortunately it often is. Obama is certainly acting opportunistically by removing the arms embargo to Vietnam now but his principals – i.e. burying old enmities and looking forward – must be applauded.  Vietnam was a deeply contentious and, ultimately, unpopular war, but to allow its haunting memory to obstruct a crucial bilateral relationship is to do a disservice to those who fought for a cause – however flawed – that sought peace.

More questionable is the current Vietnamese government’s human rights record, which is quite frankly appalling. The White House has stated that any arms deal between Washington and Hanoi will be dependent upon the latter’s improved respect for human rights but such sentiments have not stopped US manufacturers from selling weapons to other violators of these norms (Saudi Arabia for instance).

Saudi Arabia remains a major purchaser of American arms despite a dreadful human rights record
Saudi Arabia remains a major purchaser of American arms despite a dreadful human rights record

If President Obama has acted with indecision when confronted by several treacherous foreign policy challenges during his tenure in office (his red line with regards to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria being a particular case in point), he will be remembered for his efforts to try and improve relations between Washington and states with which it has been left a bitter legacy.

By combining this consistent philosophy with geostrategic calculations – such as hedging against a more militaristic China – Obama is leaving his successor with a less dispiriting outlook when confronting the foreign policy objectives of the near future.

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Putin & Abe Unlikely to Resolve Kuril Dispute: sovereignty, nationalism and history combine for toxic mix

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi last Friday, with the ongoing territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands set to dominate proceedings...at least from the media’s point of view.

The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very 'constructively'
The Kremlin claimed that Putin and Abe discussed the Kuril dispute very ‘constructively’

No agreement over the islands was expected to arise from the summit, hampering the potential for the signing of a peace treaty to formally end hostilities between the two nations, an issue left unresolved since World War Two (WWII).

Stretching some 750 miles between the southern tip of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and the north-eastern coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the Kurils are thought to have first been settled by the indigenous Ainu people. Coming under semi-administrative control of the Japanese during the Edo period, the only economic activity of note relating to the islands was fishing and, later, whaling.

The changing borders of the Kuril Islands
The changing borders of the Kuril Islands

In the 19th century, Russia lay claim to the Kurils and in 1855 the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation was signed giving Japan control over the southernmost islands and Russia over the northern ones. In 1875 this was overwritten by the Treaty of St Petersburg which gave full control to the Japanese in return for their relinquishing of any claims to Sakhalin, which came under sole Russian authority.

The Japanese retained control over the Kuril Islands until towards the end of WWII when, with their defeat almost secured, the Soviet Union finally entered the war in the Pacific Theater. Stalin had avoided opening up a second major front during the preceding years due to the ferocity of the fighting during the repulsion of the Nazi invasion. Despite frequent attempts by the Allied forces – particularly the Chinese whose very existence was threatened by Tokyo’s expansionist foreign policy – Stalin had no intention of spreading his forces too widely. He was, however, a ruthless opportunist and Japan’s capitulation offered the prospect of new territory in the Far East.

In 1946, the Soviet authorities expelled the approximately 17,000 Japanese citizens from the Kurils and resettled them with Russians. Despite vociferous protests ever since, the Tokyo administration has never regained any of the islands, which continue to give Russia a strategic foothold on the very threshold of Japanese territory.

Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians
Long-term inhabitants of the Kuril Islands, the Ainu people were progressively assimilated and/or expelled by the both the Japanese and the Russians

Commensurate with his rather assertive foreign policy, Putin has in recent years ordered the strengthening of Russia’s military presence on the Kurils, including the construction of new operations bases and missile defence sites. This has understandably not been received with fanfare in Tokyo, particularly given the nationalist tendencies of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and of Abe himself. With the Prime Minister intent on creating a more ‘normal’ Japanese foreign policy – essentially allowing Japan to take part in more than just self-defence operations, as prescribed by its post-WWII constitution – territorial disputes such as this remain a potential flashpoint.

Both the East China Sea and, more significantly, the South China Sea have received extensive press attention for the myriad arguments over sovereignty and economic rights, with the Chinese effectively seizing control of the latter with their land reclamation projects and military re-alignment. The Kuril Islands receive less coverage, yet the failure to reach any long-term resolution on the dispute means that it too is a potential cause for inadvertent conflict between the some of the world’s superpowers.

America naturally comes into the equation. It was Roosevelt whose determination to encourage the Soviets to enter the Pacific War led to a promise at the Yalta Conference that Stalin would receive the Kuril Islands. However, when it came to signing the Treaty of San Francisco to secure a lasting peace between Japan and the wartime Allies, Stalin accused the Americans of reneging on their promise at Yalta to recognise Soviet sovereignty over the Kurils. For their part, the Americans stated that the agreement at Yalta only related to the northern Kuril Islands, not the four large southern islands that the Japanese continue to claim. The lasting historical enmity over this supposed duplicity – in addition to Cold War antagonisms – has only increased Soviet obstinacy on the Kuril issue.

With Russia and China both militarising some of the most contentious territorial disputes in the Pacific, and refusing to even acknowledge any counter-arguments to their stated positions, the prospect for an ‘incident’ to occur between two major powers cannot be overlooked. Given the nature of geostrategic power politics in the region, such an incident would likely involve more than the two belligerents.

The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential
The Kuril Islands are strategically located, although they appear to have limited economic potential

Nationalist tension is undoubtedly high and it is fuelled by history. It would be comforting to think that a meeting between two of the most powerful heads of state may lead to an easing of diplomatic anxiety, yet the reality is more sombre.

Analysts continue to assess the most likely source of a future war between great powers. They would do well to start by looking at the Pacific, a region often overshadowed by the disasters of the Middle East but with a history of violence that is almost comparable.

Burundi Descends Into Mayhem: the World Watches On

Burundi continues to avoid international headlines despite slipping further into internal conflict that threatens to mutate into all-out civil war. Ever since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial – his opponents allege unconstitutional – third term last year, political violence in the impoverished African country has escalated.

Scene of the assassination of a Burundian general by opposition forces
Scene of the assassination of a Burundian general by opposition forces

After his 2015 announcement that he was to run for the presidency again, Nkurunziza was temporarily displaced by a coup before being reinstated by loyalist soldiers. Ever since, arbitrary arrests, political assassinations, grenade attacks and hounding of innocent civilians has engulfed Burundi, with its African Union (AU) colleagues looking on helplessly.

A recent decision to hold talks between the government and opposition forces under the mediation of former Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa have been delayed because of the refusal of either side to hear the other out. In short, more significant international pressure is required to prevent Burundi relapsing into civil war, which killed some 200,000 people between 1993 and 2006 and displaced thousands more.

Overshadowed by the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, the Burundian civil war (also involving ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis) created thousands of refugees and a bitter legacy
Overshadowed by the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, the Burundian civil war (also involving ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis) created thousands of refugees and a bitter legacy

One country that has seamlessly manoeuvred itself into a position of influence on the African continent in the past few years is China. Whilst Burundi does not host the natural resources that China craves, Beijing is still its most important trading partner.

Burundi-China relations date back to shortly after the former’s independence from Belgium in 1962 although ties between the two made an inauspicious start. During preparations for Burundi’s independence celebrations in October 1962, the Communist Chinese ambassador for Tanganyika – one Ho Ying – made the short trip across the border to Bujumbura in anticipation of leading the Chinese delegation. However, the Burundian government – supposedly under pressure from the USA – decided instead to invite a Nationalist Chinese delegate from Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan.

Ho Ying withdrew citing ‘the imperialist scheme of using the Chiang Kai-shek clique to undermine Sino-Burundi friendly relations’ and it was not until December 1963 that Mao’s China established formal relations with the Kingdom of Burundi.

Despite pumping several million dollars’ worth of Official Development Assistance into Burundi, and in spite of claiming a desire to increase cooperation with Bujumbura, the Chinese have stopped short of providing a constructive or influential alliance. Typical of its foreign policy in general, China has chosen to overlook the growing crisis and wait out the consequences, content in the knowledge that its economic support will always be welcomed, if not actively required.

This approach has severely hampered Chinese attempts to be seen as a responsible global power. Indeed, Beijing tends to adopt a low-key attitude in all its foreign affairs, with the exception of asserting its ambitious territorial claims. Its belligerence over such claims is equally, if not more, dangerous than its procrastination over regional troubles such as those currently affecting Burundi.

Nkurunziza with Chinese President Xi Jinping
Nkurunziza with Chinese President Xi Jinping

Africa needs to be seen to deal with Africa’s problems. However, where a global power is able to exert its influence in a positive manner then there is no shame in accepting help. Unfortunately for Burundi – and many other states that have critical economic relations with China – such assistance is unlikely to come soon from Beijing.

This opens up the potential for continuing political violence which could degenerate into a bloody, and ethnically-divided, civil war the likes of which have been seen in the region before. Perhaps Bujumbura would have been better served maintaining ties with Taiwan, rather than Taipei’s mainland cousin.