The Obama administration will lift a decades-old ban on lethal weapon sales to Vietnam, ending one of the last vestiges of both the Vietnam conflict and the Cold War, President Barack Obama announced at a Hanoi news conference Monday.
Obama dismissed suggestions that the change was related to China's growing strength in the region, but said it will "ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself."
Obama said Vietnam will have to meet "strict requirements, including those related to human rights." The Southeast Asian country's poor human rights record has been an impasse in previous negotiations over the trade embargo. The president also said that the agreement "underscores the commitment of the United States to a fully normalized relationship with Vietnam."
The two countries announced business deals worth $16 billion as they seek to further expand trade. In one, Boeing will sell 100 aircraft to VietJet, a Vietnamese budget airline. In another, General Electric and the Vietnamese government will team up on wind power work, Obama announced.
Arms sales would continue to be evaluated under a "case-by-case," basis under the agreement, Obama said.
"But what we do not have is a ban that's based on an ideological division between our two countries," he said. "Because we think, at this stage, both sides have established a level of trust and cooperation, including between our militaries, that is reflective of common interests and mutual respect."
The agreement completes a process that began two years ago with the announcement that the United States would lift parts of the embargo that related to maritime surveillance and “security-related” systems in response to modest improvements in Vietnam's human rights records.
Human rights groups challenged that assertion in sharp rebukes that are expected to be repeated this time around. The one-party state's record on human rights remains "dire in all areas," according to Human Rights Watch . The organization cites restrictions on freedoms of press, religion, speech and association; routine harassment, assault and imprisonment of political dissenters, and police beatings and torture, among other human rights infractions.
But with both Vietnam and China asserting claims on the South China Sea, the risk of a military confrontation between the two countries is rising. Such a clash would significantly harm United States interests, with $5 trillion in trade passing through the sea annually, including more than half of the world's trade in liquid natural gas and over 33 percent of the trade in crude oil, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.