US President Barack Obama has lifted a decades-old arms export embargo for Vietnam during his first visit to the communist country, looking to bolster a government seen as a crucial, though flawed partner even as he pushes for better human rights from the one-party state.
Obama announced the full removal of the embargo at a news conference, saying the move was intended to step toward normalising relations with the former war enemy and to eliminate a "lingering vestige of the Cold War".
"At this stage both sides have developed a level of trust and co-operation," Obama said, adding that he expected deepening co-operation between the two nation\’s militaries.
Obama is seeking to strike this balance with Vietnam amid Chinese efforts to strengthen claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea, one of the world\’s most important waterways.
Lifting the arms embargo will be a psychological boost for Vietnam\’s leaders as they look to counter an increasingly aggressive China, but there may not be a big jump in sales.
Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang thanked Obama for lifting the embargo.
US lawmakers and activists had urged the president to press the communist leadership for greater freedoms before granting it. Vietnam holds about 100 political prisoners and there have been more detentions this year.
The United States partially lifted the embargo in 2014, but Vietnam wanted full access as it tries to deal with China\’s assertive land reclamation and military construction in nearby seas.
Vietnam has not bought anything, but removing the remaining restrictions shows relations are fully normalised and opens the way to deeper security cooperation.
After three days in Vietnam, Obama heads to Japan for an international summit and a visit to Hiroshima, where he will be the first sitting president to visit the site of the first atomic bomb attack.