US President Barack Obama announced on Monday that Washington would fully lift an embargo on sales of lethal arms to Vietnam, despite human rights organizations describing it as "among the world's most repressive regimes."
At a lavish state luncheon in Hanoi, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang toasted Obama's first visit to the country as the arrival of a warm spring after a cold winter.
Obama, the third US president to visit Vietnam since ties were restored in 1995, has made a strategic "rebalance" towards Asia-Pacific a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Vietnam, where the United States was at war until 1975, has become a critical part of that strategy amid concerns about China's growing military might and Beijing's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
The decision to lift the arms trade ban, which followed intense debate within the Obama administration, suggested that US concerns about China's assertiveness outweighed arguments that Vietnam had not done enough to improve its human rights record and that Washington would lose leverage for reforms.
The last annual report by NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Vietnam's record remained "dire in all areas," with the Communist Party allowing no challenge to its leadership, restricting basic rights such as freedom of speech and association, as well as imprisoning and assaulting activists and bloggers. Police regularly engage in torture, the justice system and all public institutions are controlled by the government, and the media and internet are censored.
"In short, Vietnam is a police state," HRW said in a letter to Obama on May 19, urging him to raise human rights, meet dissidents and former political prisoners, and give speeches making clear that improved relations depended on improved human rights.
Responding to the lifting of the embargo, HRW Asia Division Deputy Director Phil Robertson was staunch in his criticism.
"As Obama was lifting the US arms embargo, the Vietnam authorities were busy arresting journalist Doan Trang and other human rights activists and bloggers on the street and in their houses. In one fell swoop, Obama has jettisoned what remained of US leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam — and basically gotten nothing for it," he wrote in a statement on Monday.
A joint statement from the two governments issued by the State Department on Monday said the United States "welcomed Vietnam's ongoing efforts in improving its legal system and undertaking legal reform in order to better guarantee the human rights and fundamental freedoms for everyone."
That followed a joint news conference with Quang on Monday, at which Obama acknowledged the countries still had differences over human rights but said Vietnam had made some modest improvements.
Disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully and not by whoever "throws their weight around," he added, but insisted that the arms embargo move was not linked to China.
"The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations, it's based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalization with Vietnam," he said, adding later that his visit to a former foe showed "hearts can change and peace is possible."
He said the sale of arms would depend on Vietnam's human rights commitments, and would be made on a case-by-case basis.
Though the communist parties that run China and Vietnam officially have brotherly ties, Beijing's brinkmanship has forced Vietnam to recalibrate its defense strategy.
The lifting of the US embargo will tighten the strategic pressure on China while deepening Vietnam's relationship with the United States. It will also provide Vietnam with leverage in future arms deals with traditional weapons suppliers, particularly its long-time security patron, Russia.
While Vietnam has recently obtained submarines equipped with land-attack missiles, advanced air defense radars, and state-of-the-art jet fighters from other nations, it was likely to seek advanced surveillance and intelligence systems from the US, said Collin Koh, a military expert at Singapore's S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"This is a really cutting-edge but niche field that will help Vietnam better integrate its various forces — and the US can really help fill this gap," Koh said.
Lifting the ban will likely upset China, which sees US support for rival South China Sea claimants like Vietnam and the Philippines as interference and an attempt to establish hegemony in the region. Washington insists its priority is ensuring freedom of navigation and flight.
China's foreign ministry said after the announcement in Hanoi that it hoped the development in relations between the United States and Vietnam would be conducive to regional peace and stability.
Underlining the burgeoning commercial relationship between the US and Vietnam, one of the first deals signed on Obama's trip was an $11.3 billion order for 100 Boeing planes by low-cost airline VietJet.
China is Vietnam's biggest trade partner and source of imports. But trade with the US has swelled 10-fold over the past two decades to about $45 billion, and Vietnam is now Southeast Asia's biggest exporter to America.
In the commercial hub, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, Obama will on Tuesday meet entrepreneurs and tout a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal he has championed, in which Vietnam would be the biggest beneficiary of the 12 members.
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