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Obama Lifts Arms Export Embargo On Vietnam


President Obama is now the third president to visit Vietnam. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton visited the capital, Hanoi. Anytime the leaders of the two nations meet, the legacy of America's war is not far from the mind. One of those legacies is a 50-year ban on weapons sales to the communist government. Obama ended that ban today.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As with all our defense partners, sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those related to human rights. But this change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and removes a lingering vestige of the Cold War. It also underscores the commitment of the United States to a fully normalized relationship with Vietnam, including strong defense ties with Vietnam and this region for the long term.

MONTAGNE: When the president talked about supporting Vietnam with its defense needs, he had something very specific in mind. For an explanation, we checked in with NPR's national security correspondent, David Welna. David, welcome to the program.


MONTAGNE: And why does Obama want to let Vietnam start to buy weapons now?

WELNA: In a word, China. The U.S. hasn't sold any weapons to Vietnam since the Communists took over that nation more than 40 years ago. And President Reagan issued a formal ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam in 1984. But, you know, China's increasingly aggressive expansion into the South China Sea has caused a lot of officials here to rethink that ban. And two years ago, President Obama ordered it partially lifted to allow Vietnam to buy maritime patrol vessels. It actually didn't buy any of them since then.

MONTAGNE: And can he - the president just issue an order on his own?

WELNA: Well, just as Reagan imposed that ban, Obama alone can end it. But individual arms sales will still need the approval of Congress. Doing away with the ban entirely has the strong support of many defense hawks in Congress, including John McCain, who's not only the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, but he was also tortured and held prisoner by the North Vietnamese for five years.

McCain says it's time to help Vietnam defend itself against China. And up to now, Vietnam has been getting most of its major arms from Russia, a situation which might now change in the favor of U.S. arms manufacturers. McCain's committee just approved a big policy bill that calls for lifting the lethal arms sales ban entirely. And now there are also some critics in Congress of lifting that ban, not so much because this is a country the U.S. fought a losing war with - that doesn't seem to be the issue. But rather it's Vietnam's questionable record on human rights.

MONTAGNE: And David, given the thousands of troops who lost their lives in Vietnam, how is the Pentagon reacting?

WELNA: Well, we have not heard objections from the Pentagon. In fact, Defense Secretary Ash Carter was asked about lifting the arms sales ban at a Senate Armed Services hearing a couple of weeks ago. And he readily declared his support for doing so. For the Pentagon, you know, lifting that ban might also improve its chances of docking warships at the new port that's been built in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay. Vietnam does not allow any foreign bases on its soil right now. But access to that port could give American ships a much faster response time to any moves that might be made by China in the region.

MONTAGNE: And a moment ago, you mentioned human rights violations. Vietnam does have a history of repressing its political opponents. And this year, there's been an increase in arrests of bloggers and activists. And now that the U.S. has lifted the embargo, won't that remove Washington's bargaining power when it comes to human rights?

WELNA: That could happen. There have been efforts in recent weeks by the state department. Its top envoy for human rights, Tom Malinowski, was just in Vietnam talking with the Vietnamese about this issue. And the fact that Congress has to still approve individual arms sales to Vietnam would be an ongoing reason for Vietnam to try to improve its record on human rights. There are maybe 100 dissidents who are in prison right now simply for criticizing Vietnam's government.

But I think that the calculus with Vietnam has shifted a lot so that human rights are no longer the top concern. The really big concern is China's expansionist aims. And Vietnam is seen as a country that the U.S. really wants to keep in its fold.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's national security correspondent, David Welna. Thank you.

WELNA: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: And President Obama also announced several big trade deals this morning. Vietnam will purchase 100 Boeing passenger jets, Pratt & Whitney jet engines, and signed a deal with General Electric to develop wind-generated power. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.