President Obama has announced that the US is fully lifting the ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam.
In a news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, the president said the removal of the ban was part of a deeper defence co-operation and dismissed suggestions it was aimed at countering China’s growing strength in the region.
Instead, it was the desire to continue normalising relations between the US and Vietnam and to do away with a ban “based on ideological division between our two countries,” he said.
The Vietnam War ended in April 1975 with the fall of Saigon — now called Ho Chi Minh City — after the US withdrew combat forces and the North Vietnamese launched a massive offensive to reunite their homeland under communism.
While Vietnam and China are neighbours that share a Communist ideology, China has aggressively claimed territory in the South China Sea, irking Vietnam and its other Southeast Asian neighbours..
In a recent and provocative show of force, China flew two jets jets close to US aircraft stationed in airspace above the disputed region.
At a press briefing by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Monday, ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that it was appropriate for the ban to be lifted.
“(The) arms sales ban was a product of the Cold War and should no longer exist,” she told reporters.
“We hope the lifting of all such bans will benefit regional peace and development. And we are happy to see the United States and Vietnam develop normal cooperative relations.”
Obama defended the decision to lift the arms ban despite Vietnam’s dismal record on human rights — involving the jailing of dissidents and stalled political reforms — saying sales would be evaluated on a “case-by-case” basis.
However, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth said via Twitter that Obama was opting to “arm Vietnam as an anti-China ally rather than care about its ongoing repression.”
In 2014, the US eased restrictions of an arms ban that was originally instated during the Vietnam war.
Obama also thanked Vietnam for its continued aid in addressing what he called “the painful legacy of war,” referring to attempts to locate veterans missing in action, the removal of landmines and the cleaning up of Agent Orange.
Earlier Monday, the two leaders shook hands in front of a large bronze bust of Vietnamese Communist Leader Ho Chi Minh inside the Presidential Palace.
“We’ve come here as a symbol of the renewed ties we have made over the last several decades and the comprehensive partnership we have created over the course of my presidency,” the president said.
He is on a week-long trip to Asia to boost economic and security cooperation in the region and is expected to head south to Ho Chi Minh City before traveling to Japan.
It was President Bill Clinton who reopened diplomatic ties with Vietnam in 1995, and in 2000 became the first president to travel there since US personnel were evacuated from there 25 years earlier.
Earlier on Monday, Obama and Quang also witnessed the signing of a record $11.3 billion deal between plane-maker Boeing and local airline VietJet.
VietJet’s order of 100 737 jets is the largest commercial plane order in Vietnamese history.