When President Obama rescinded the arms embargo on Vietnam in May, one of the last lingering vestiges of the Vietnam War finally faded away. By normalizing relations with its former adversary, the U.S. hopes to win a new ally and check China's growing influence in the region. So you may be wondering: Just how powerful is Vietnam these days?
As luck would have it, Jules Suzdaltsev addresses that very question in today's Seeker Daily dispatch.
Vietnam may be small, geographically speaking, but they've got a big army. With 5.5 million active and reserve personnel, Vietnam's armed forces are larger than those of more politically powerful neighbors, like Japan and South Korea. The country has a relatively small defense budget, however. Also, thanks to the former embargo, the armed forces are still mostly equipped with aging, Soviet-era weapons.
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Free market reforms have improved the country's economy over the last couple of decades. While still ostensibly a Communist country under one-party rule, Vietnam has enjoyed gradual economic growth. Today, Vietnam's GDP is more than $180 billion, compared with just $6 billion in 1990, and the country is among the world's largest exporters of rice.
Vietnam's improving economic prospects are also boosted by its inclusion in the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a free trade deal between the U.S. and 11 other countries. Currently, China is Vietnam's largest trading partner, but the U.S. is gaining fast. Vietnam's GDP is expected to surge under the proposed free-trade partnership, diminishing the nation's reliance on China.
Japan, Australia, Singapore and the Philippines have also recently strengthened relations with Vietnam, with the goal of creating a counterweight to the growing influence of China in the region.
Unfortunately, market reforms and new diplomatic relations have not improved the human rights situation in Vietnam. The country has an appalling track record of imprisoning dissidents and violently cracking down on protesters. Human rights advocates petitioned the U.S. to demand reforms before lifting the arms embargo, but to no avail.
"President Obama just gave Vietnam a reward that they don't deserve," John Sifton, Asia policy director with the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times.
Reformers hope that Vietnam's improving relations with the international community will have a positive effect on human rights within the country.
-- Glenn McDonald
CIA World Factbook: Vietnam
New York Times: Vietnam Arms Embargo to Be Fully Lifted, Obama Says in Hanoi
The Guardian: Vietnam 40 years on: how a communist victory gave way to capitalist corruption
Bloomberg: Toasts Turn to Water Cannons in China, Vietnam Sea Spat