Obama spent three days in Vietnam announcing a high-profile rescission of the arms embargo, which has become a focus of international commentary as of late. America and Vietnam both want to be Zhuge Liang [a famous tactician in classical China], each hoping the other will play right into their plans for their own benefit only. As Obama implements the “Pivot to Asia,” he has worked hard to find the pieces to play with; Vietnam and China are in dispute over sovereignty in the South China Sea. [Vietnam] hopes for America to render support and counterbalance China. The two are thus in the spotlight ready to play “Zhuge’s game.” But regardless of how Hanoi opens, it will only expend blood, sweat, and cash to purchase America’s secondhand, obsolete weapons, all the while subjecting itself to interrogation, bullying and humiliation from Congress. Similarly, regardless of how Obama might try agitating, Vietnam cannot cut itself off from the genuine relationships it has with Russia and China.

At the same time that Obama announced the total lift of the Vietnamese weapons embargo at a press conference, he also publicly foreshadowed [future steps], saying that America will evaluate weapons exports gradually, hinting that in the future processes of procurement Vietnam will need to “show some [improved] performance”—a very tantalizing implication. The president of Vietnam, Trần Đại Quang, was quite absentminded, believing his own lies in saying that the lift of the arms embargo represents a complete normalization of relations for the two countries. Factually speaking, America and Vietnam once fought one of the great wars of the last century, the countries’ social structures are nothing alike, and America is free to use “human rights” or “liberty” and other such pretexts to strong-arm Hanoi. Additionally, Russia has always been Vietnam’s chief arms provider, and these actions involve Moscow’s interests.

Intermediate Involvement of Russian Interests

Obama is not only lifting the arms embargo to entice Vietnam. He is also working to push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The agreement that has been obstructed in Congress is still being treated as bait, promising to strengthen business and trade relations with Vietnam. In order to pursue “Pacific rebalance,” America is striving to assist Vietnam to strengthen its military power, exporting arms to the country where there are human rights issues. This is nothing more than Washington hitting itself in the face. The lifting of the embargo has been assailed by members of Congress, who believe it amounts to giving the Vietnamese carte blanche to continue suppressing human rights. America’s goal is to check China, but Obama tried to use a “proof is in the pudding” tone in saying that lifting the embargo was not directed against China, and in so doing showed the hypocritical face of Western politicians.

Russia is the largest supplier of military weaponry for Vietnam, and also serves as a moral pillar for Hanoi. The evening before Obama announced the lifting of the embargo during his visit in Hanoi, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc hurriedly went to visit Russia in a pilgrimage to keep them informed. Vietnam and Russia possess a tradition of friendship, but the weapons embargo touches upon Moscow’s core interests. While both sides have their own internal reasoning and influences, Vietnam still must tread lightly. Vietnam is now walking a diplomatic tightrope as it seeks to win both Russian support in the South China Sea and play “Zhuge’s game” with America. According to Western media sources, Moscow is currently putting pressure on Vietnam on matters related to Vịnh Cam Ranh.

Washington and Hanoi’s Mutual Tease

Vịnh Cam Ranh is an important Vietnamese military base, and is also a well-known port with quite ideal water depth. America has eyed it covetously since the last century, and Russia has also been quite invested. Beginning in 1979, Vịnh Cam Ranh was rented out to the then-Soviet Union for a period of 25 years, but because of economic troubles Moscow had no choice but to temporarily withdraw [at the end of the lease]. The conflict between America and Russia over usage rights to Vịnh Cam Ranh unfolded very early on, and thanks to this, Hanoi is indeed able to tease Washington. The Vietnamese ambassador to Russia recently stated that Vietnam views Russia as a traditional cooperative partner, and the development of mutually trusting relations between the two countries is a priority of Vietnamese foreign policy.

On the one hand, Hanoi is willing to develop national defense cooperation with Russia by utilizing Vịnh Cam Ranh so as to ensure regional stability. On the other hand, however, it has hinted that it is willing to likewise cooperate with America. Furthermore, according to reports by Reuters, Vietnam is also actively courting Japan to cooperate in Vịnh Cam Ranh, requesting Japan to provide ships in order to assist the strengthening of its coastal force. Japanese ships have indeed recently come close to Vịnh Cam Ranh at sensitive times, demonstrating that Vietnam is not only using the base to bait Russia and America, but is also playing a game of threes with Tokyo. Yet historical experience shows that when one considers oneself Zhuge Liang, it always brings about the opposite outcome.