The United States announced a complete end to its arms embargo on Vietnam on Monday, a historic step that draws a line under the two countries’ earlier enmity and underscores their shared concerns about China’s growing military clout.
The move came during President Barack Obama’s first visit to Hanoi, which his hosts described as the arrival of a warm spring and a new chapter in relations between two countries that were at war four decades ago.
Obama, the third U.S. president to visit Vietnam since diplomatic relations were restored in 1995, has made a strategic “rebalance” toward Asia a centerpiece of his foreign policy.
Vietnam, which borders China, is a key part of that strategy amid worries about Beijing’s assertiveness and sovereignty claims to 80 percent of the South China Sea.
The decision to lift the arms trade ban suggested such concerns outweighed arguments that Vietnam had not done enough to improve its human rights record and Washington would lose leverage for reforms.
Obama told a joint news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang that disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved peacefully and not by whoever “throws their weight around.” But he insisted the arms embargo shift was not linked to China.
“The decision to lift the ban 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,” he said. Obama later added his visit to a former foe showed “hearts can change and peace is possible.”
In 2014, the Obama administration eased the decades-old arms embargo to allow its former Cold War enemy to buy maritime surveillance and “security-related” systems to strengthen it with China in mind.
Now Hanoi will be able to buy a full range of U.S. weapons and military equipment. Immediate big-ticket purchases are not expected, but Vietnam’s military strategists are likely to seek U.S. drones, radar, coastal patrol boats and possibly P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft.
The sale of arms, Obama said, would depend on Vietnam’s human rights commitments, and be made on a case-by-case basis.