HANOI — The Obama administration announced Monday that the United States would fully lift a longstanding U.S. embargo on lethal arms sales to Vietnam, a decision that reflects growing concerns about China’s military clout and illustrates the warming bilateral ties between the former enemy nations.
President Obama unveiled the new arrangement at a news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang during the opening day of his first visit to the country. Obama emphasized that his decision reflected a maturing relationship and deepening cooperation on security and economic investment four decades after the end of the Vietnam War.
Two years ago, the administration eased portions of the arms embargo that had been in place since 1975 to help bolster Vietnam’s maritime security in the South China Sea, where China’s move to exert more naval control of crucial shipping corridors has angered Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations that have claimed sovereignty.
Obama said the latest step "was not based on China or any other considerations. It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalization with Vietnam."
With U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, a veteran of the Vietnam War, in the front row at the Hanoi Convention Center, the president heralded "a new moment" in the bilateral relationship. The lifting of the ban "will ensure Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and removes a lingering vestige of the Cold War."
Obama acknowledged, however, that the United States and Vietnam share a mutual concern over China's provocations in the region, and he reiterated a previous pledge that the United States would "continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows."
The new arrangement would allow the United States to sell military weapons to Vietnam on a case-by-case basis and would be predicated on improvements in the country on human rights and freedom of expression, White House officials said.
Ahead of Obama's trip, human rights advocates in the United States had called on the administration to maintain the weapons ban until more progress has been made by the ruling Communist Party.
"The United States government has been telling the Vietnam government for years that they need to show progress on their human rights record if they are going to be rewarded with closer military and economic ties," said John Sifton, Asia policy director for Human Rights Watch. "Yet today President Obama rewarded Vietnam even though its government has done little to earn it: It has not repealed any repressive laws, nor released any significant number of political prisoners, nor made any substantial pledges."
At the news conference with Obama, Quang asserted that his country has made progress on human rights.
"We need to work closely together and expand dialogue together," he said. "By so doing, we can narrow the gap in understanding and narrow the differences between the two countries."
A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Beijing is "pleased to see Vietnam developing normal relationships with all countries including the United States, and we hope it benefits regional peace, stability and development." But ahead of Obama's visit, China's state news service Xinhua accused the United States of having “shown no restraint in meddling in a regional situation” in the South China Sea.
The conflicts in the South China Sea have escalated in recent years after China installed an oil drilling rig off the coast of Vietnam, within the exclusive 200-mile economic zone established under international law. The Chinese military has embarked on a massive land reclamation project in the disputed Spratly Islands, prompting the U.S. Navy to conduct two freedom-of-navigation missions aimed at dissuading Beijing from militarizing the area.
The Philippines has taken its claims against China over sovereignty in coastal regions to an international tribunal at The Hague, a case being closely monitored in Washington. A ruling is expected in June, but China has said it does not recognize the tribunal’s authority in the matter.
"Our hope is that ultimately the various claims and disputes can be resolved," Obama said. "We are doing everything we can to promote that."
Last year, Obama visited the Philippines and announced $250 million in new U.S. aid for maritime security efforts in the region, including Vietnam. In February, Obama hosted leaders from 10 Southeast Asian nations at the Sunnylands retreat in Southern California.
Patrick Cronin, an Asia-Pacific expert at the Center for a New American Security, said Washington and Hanoi were aiming to convey to China that its neighbors are "determined to provide their own self-defense against aggression and assertiveness. Not looking for a fight but very much just saying, 'We're not going to be endlessly pushed around.'"
Obama became the third consecutive president — after Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — to visit Vietnam since the normalizing of relations in 1995. Air Force One arrived late Sunday, and the president was greeted on the tarmac in Hanoi with a red carpet and a bouquet of flowers.
Children dressed in red, white and blue outfits lined the streets Monday as Obama’s motorcade made its way to the presidential palace, an ornate mustard-colored building with sculptured gardens and a massive water fountain. Quang greeted Obama, and they were feted by a military band playing each country’s national anthem during an official welcome ceremony.
In addition to closer military cooperation, the United States and Vietnam are partners in the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an expansive free trade and regulatory accord that Obama has made a centerpiece of his economic and foreign policy agenda. However, Congress has not yet ratified the agreement, and the major presidential candidates have publicly opposed it.
Three congressional Democrats — Sen. Thomas Carper (D-Del.), who supports the TPP, and Reps. Joaquin Castro and Beto O'Rourke, both of Texas, who remain undecided on the pact — flew to Vietnam with Obama on Air Force One. They sat in the front row during his news conference, along with Kerry, national security adviser Susan E. Rice and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman.
Obama said he remains confident that Congress will approve the trade deal.
"I have not yet seen a credible argument that once we get TPP in place that we are worse off," he said. "We will be in demonstrably better shape."
But he acknowledged than in an election year, "the politics of it will be noisy."