US to completely lift Vietnam lethal arms embargo

Obama says the US will fully lift the ban, but the sale of arms depends on Vietnam’s human rights.

US President Barack Obama (L) and his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang review an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on 23 May, 2016. Picture: AFP.

HANOI, VIETNAM - Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang said on Monday the United States had decided to "completely lift" its embargo on trade in lethal arms with the Southeast Asian country.

"Vietnam very much appreciates the US decision to completely lift the ban on lethal weapon sales to Vietnam, which is the clear proof that both countries have completely normalised relation," Quang said through a translator at a joint news conference with US President Barack Obama.

Obama said the United States was fully lifting the ban but the sale of arms would depend on Vietnam's human rights commitments.

His visit has been preceded by a debate in Washington over whether Obama should use the three-day visit starting Monday to roll back an arms embargo on Hanoi, one of the last vestiges of wartime animosity.

That would anger China, which resents US efforts to forge stronger military bonds with Beijing's neighbors amid rising tensions in the disputed South China Sea.

But in the hours ahead of his arrival in Hanoi, where he was greeted on a red carpet by foreign ministry officials, there was no immediate word of a final US decision on the ban.

Vietnam's poor human rights record is a sticking point, but the Obama administration appears increasingly swayed toward giving Hanoi some leeway to build its deterrent against Beijing.

Obama's visit follows what the Pentagon called an "unsafe" intercept by Chinese fighter jets of a US military reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea on Tuesday.

"Nobody has any illusions," said Evan Medeiros, Obama's former top Asia adviser. "This trip sends important signals to China about US activism in the region and growing US concern about Chinese behavior."

Vietnam's government earlier this month said lifting the embargo would show mutual trust and that buying arms from its partners was "normal".

There has been much excitement about Obama's arrival in a country with a young population enthusiastic about closer US ties, and resentful of Vietnam's economic dependence on its unpopular neighbor China.

"Obama visit to Vietnam is closure of the past," said Hanoi cyclo driver Vu Van Manh. "What's important is the present. The two countries can bond more to develop both economies."

As a sign of the capitalism that now thrives in Vietnam, some opportunistic businesses are using pictures of a smiling Obama to sell suits and instant photo services.

Bilateral trade has swelled 10 times over since ties were normalized in 1995 to around $45 billion now. Vietnam is Southeast Asia's biggest exporter to the United States, with textiles and electronics the largest volumes.