During a press conference today in Hanoi, President Obama announced the lifting of the arms embargo against Vietnam. Although he stated that the action had nothing to do with China, U.S. officials have noted before that the idea was to help Vietnam counter threats from the PRC in the South China Sea. There has also been speculation that Vietnam would, in return, provide access to Cam Ranh Bay and its deepwater port.
Of course, attentive readers will remember that back in November 2014 the embargo was lifted to permit exports to Vietnam of non-lethal defense articles and lethal weapons “to enhance maritime security capabilities and domain awareness.” Applications for such exports were considered on a case-by-case basis. As a result of today’s action, this limitation on lethal weapon exports to Vietnam has been removed.
DDTC scrambled to get something up on its website, where this notice now appears:
Industry Notice: Change in Policy on Exports of Munitions to Vietnam (05.23.16)
Pursuant to a decision made by the Secretary of State and effective immediately, the Department of State’s policy prohibiting the sale or transfer of lethal weapons to Vietnam, including restrictions on exports to and imports from Vietnam for arms and related materiel, has been terminated. Consequently, in accordance with the Arms Export Control Act, the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) will review on case-by-case basis applications for licenses to export or temporarily import defense articles and defense services to or from Vietnam under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). DDTC will soon publish a rule in the Federal Register to implement a conforming change to ITAR §126.1.
Since the provisions in section 126.1 refer to a licensing policy, there seems to be no reason why DDTC can’t change the license policy first and clean up the regulations later. After all, the Vietnam subsection of 126.1 starts with “[i]t is the policy of the United States to deny” licenses for exports to Vietnam. So, if an exporter applies for and receives a license, there won’t be any issue of violating the unchanged regulation.
Things, however, are not so simple for the absolute prohibition in section 126.1(b), which provides:
A defense article licensed or otherwise authorized for export, temporary import, reexport, or retransfer under this subchapter may not be shipped on a vessel, aircraft, spacecraft, or other means of conveyance that is owned by, operated by, leased to, or leased from any of the proscribed countries, areas, or other persons referred to in this section.
That prohibition will remain in place, forbidding shipment on Vietnamese vessels of licensed defense articles, until whenever (likely in a few years) DDTC gets around to amending 126.1 to reflect today’s action.