Hanoi Calling: Obama’s visit to Vietnam likely to lift arms embargo

Amid China’s growing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific Region, the US is considering lifting the arms embargo against Vietnam ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to Hanoi on May 23.  The US is planning to expand weapon sales to Vietnam, which has been vocal against Beijing’s claims in South China Sea, to bolster regional defence partnerships to counter China’s rise in the region.

In the 1990s, the US government lifted the trade embargo but left in place restrictions imposed by the Congress to prohibit sales of weapons and certain high-technology material. The US and Vietnam restored diplomatic relations in 1995. Mr Obama eased the restrictions on sales of maritime surveillance and security systems to Vietnam in 2014. This move allowed the sale of US patrol boats with mounted machine guns, search-and-rescue vessels and naval reconnaissance aircraft. 

In June 2015, the US pledged $18 million to help Vietnam buy American-made Metal Shark patrol boats.  The deal came through after a Chinese navy ship attacked a Vietnamese patrol boat in the South China Sea. 

The Obama administration has sought to rebalance its policy towards Asia and the Pacific and sees a larger role for countries like India, Japan and Vietnam in the region. The US has been asking China to settle disputes with Vietnam in South China Sea. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, who visited Vietnam in June 2015, said that he would support easing of weapons sale to Vietnam.

This visit by Mr Obama is seen as significant since the arms embargo could mark the end of the Vietnam War era.

(Sridhar Ramaswamy contributed inputs for this article)

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