President Barack Obama has lifted a decades-old embargo on sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam during his first visit to the communist country, in an attempt to quell the “lingering vestige of the Cold War”.
Speaking with the leaders of its one-time enemy on a three day trip, Obama said both sides had “developed a level of trust and co-operation” and that it was “clear from this visit that both our peoples are eager for an even closer relationship”.
Mr Obama’s visit comes amid warming ties, as the US seeks to build its relationship with its Pacific allies. The president added that he expected deepening cooperation between the two nation’s militaries.
The move is likely to anger China, who see lifting the ban as an attempt to counter Beijing’s growing strength in the region.
“It is welcome that Vietnam improves its ties with any other country, including the United States. However, such rapprochement should not be used by the United States as a tool to threaten or even damage the strategic interests of a third country,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary late on Sunday.
Obama is seeking to strike this balance with Vietnam amid Chinese efforts to strengthen claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important waterways.
Vietnam had been arguing for an end to the arms embargo, which has been in place for decades, though was partially lifted in 2014.
US engagement with Vietnam was stepped up rapidly during that year, in what experts say was a calibrated move by the United States to seize on deteriorating ties between Vietnam and communist neighbour China over South China Sea claims.
Vietnam has been boosting its military deterrent as China intensifies its fortification of islands it controls.
US actions have made some countries in the region more assertive and “fuelled their delusions to continue to exploit illegal interests” in South China Sea, Xinhua said.
Vietnam should be cautious in dealing with the United States, which “is motivated by an insincere agenda”, the news agency said.
US lawmakers and activists had urged the president to press the communist leadership for greater freedoms before granting it. Vietnam holds about 100 political prisoners and there have been further detentions this year.