Hanoi // US president Barack Obama on Monday scrapped a Cold War-era ban on weapons sales to Vietnam, as ties between the former foes grow closer thanks to trade and mutual fears of Chinese expansion in disputed seas.
The announcement, made at the start of Mr Obama’s three-day visit to Vietnam, ends a decades-old embargo and risks irking Beijing, which has been increasingly assertive in its claims to contested areas of the South China Sea.
“Over the past century, our two nations have known cooperation and then conflict, painful separation, and a long reconciliation,” Mr Obama said alongside his Vietnamese counterpart president Tran Dai Quang.
The move, Mr Obama added, was not prompted by China’s regional manoeuvres, but came as the countries entered a “new moment” taking them towards a normalisation of ties.
Mr Quang welcomed the rollback of the ban, hailing the shared common concerns and interests that now bind the two countries.
The Obama administration has pitched this week’s trip as an opportunity to push ties beyond the period of rapprochement, with Vietnam now a vital plank in America’s much vaunted pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.
The visit is Mr Obama’s first to the country – and the third by a sitting president since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Direct US involvement in the conflict ended in 1973.
Mr Obama said he was moved to see thousands of locals lining Hanoi’s streets, craning with smartphones in hand for a view of his motorcade.
The nations have experienced an astonishing turnaround in their relations, from bitter foes physically and psychologically scarred by a decade of war to regional allies.
Until now Vietnam’s dismal human rights record has weighed against a full rollback of the arms embargo.
The one-party state still ruthlessly cracks down on protests, jails dissidents, bans trade unions and controls local media.
In a muted reference to its parlous rights situation, Mr Obama said Washington still had differences with Vietnam on human rights but “modest progress” had been made.
That sentiment jarred with some of the country’s long-persecuted dissidents.
“They [Vietnam] have not changed anything in terms of basic core values when it comes to human rights,” blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh said, while noting he was glad the embargo was lifted.
Human Rights Watch said Mr Obama had “jettisoned what remained of US leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam”.
Trade also dominated much of the first day of the trip.
A series of deals were unveiled worth some $16 billion.
Both nations have long pushed for closer trade ties, with the US hoping to tap into the growing wealth of Vietnam’s burgeoning middle-classes.
Hanoi’s leaders meanwhile crave continued growth to deflect opposition to their authoritarian rule.
The visit comes at a time when America has rarely, if ever, been so popular among ordinary Vietnamese.
A poll last year by the Pew Research Centre found 78 per cent of Vietnamese have a favourable view of the US – the third highest in Asia after the Philippines and South Korea.
The approval rate was even higher among young people in a nation where the median age is around 29.
“I like Obama as he seems moderate,” Nguyen Toan Thang, an office worker, said. “This is a once in a lifetime chance to see the US president coming to Vietnam.”
Like most Vietnamese, 25-year-old Doan Quang Vinh from Hanoi was born long after the war.
“For me, the American war against Vietnam is a matter of the past, and though we must not forget the past, we should not dwell on it. We should look towards the future,” he said.* Agence-France Presse