Lifting of Vietnam Arms Ban Sparks War of Words in South China Sea

China's state media have hit out at the lifting of the U.S. government's 41-year-old arms embargo on Vietnam, as analysts said the regional war of words could exacerbate small-scale, localized confrontation.

While U.S. officials have said the move wasn't made with Beijing in mind, official media controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party struck a warning note in editorials likely to have been approved at the highest level this week.

"Obama claimed that this move is not aimed at China, yet this is only a very poor lie which reveals the truth - exacerbating the strategic antagonism between Washington and Beijing," the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling party, wrote in a opinion piece on Tuesday.

"Trade in arms between the U.S. and Vietnam, two nations with completely different political systems, is of great symbolic significance," the paper said.

In a separate article, it warned that Beijing could be "forced to resort to militarization" amid growing tensions in the South China Sea.

"The situation in [these] waters will be more tense, conflicts and even clashes will be more likely to break out between China and the U.S.," the paper said.

Analysts said Washington's "pivot to Asia" policy looks likely to continue to ruffle feathers in Beijing, prompting further militarization of disputed reefs and islands in the busy shipping lanes of the South China Sea.

"There is a perception in the international community that the U.S. has strengthened its naval presence in the South China Sea," Taiwan military affairs commentator Zheng Shaoru told RFA on Wednesday.

"I think that the U.S. is playing a game of psychological warfare with China; a war of words that will keep up the pressure on Beijing," Zheng said. "But Beijing has also stepped up its military presence in the South China Sea."

"What's worrying about that is that there is an increased risk of accidental engagement," he said.

But Hong Kong political commentator Camoes Tam said U.S. military personnel are unlikely to brush with their Chinese counterparts in the disputed waters.

'Might is right'

"If China sees [U.S. presence] within the area, it will pretend it didn't see them, but if you are a small coastguard or fishing vessel from a smaller country like the Philippines or Vietnam, then they will detain you first and ask questions later," Tam said.

"Might is right in this scenario, and the big guys bully the smaller ones," he said. "It's a question of picking on someone smaller than you, right across the South China Sea."

Xia Ming, political science lecturer at the College of Staten Island in New York, said the lifting of the arms ban by Obama during his trip to Vietnam is part and parcel of the U.S. "pivot to Asia" policy.

"Back when ties between China and Vietnam soured in 1979, China and the United States were more closely allied," Xia said. "But now, the U.S. has brought Vietnam into the Trans-Pacific Partnership."

"U.S.-Vietnam relations have done a 180 degree turn," he said.

Wake Forest University researcher Li Weixin agreed.

"[It] is all tied in with their return to Subic Bay and Cam Ranh Bay," Li told RFA in a recent panel discussion. "It is part of the U.S. policy of re-balancing in the region."

He said Beijing has little to fear from Vietnam, arms ban or no arms ban, however.

"Vietnam doesn't have that much money, to go purchasing the latest military equipment," Li said. "And, even if they want it, it doesn't mean the other side will sell it to them."

Neither will it prove easy for Vietnam to integrate U.S. weaponry into its existing military hardware, he added.

"Vietnam also has a lot of Russian military equipment, and it won't be easy to integrate all of that," Li said. "It'll still be business as usual."

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