President Obama and his Vietnamese counterpart announced sweeping new cooperation Monday to bolster both countries’ military might, an accord prompted by the rise of China and that until recently seemed inconceivable for the two wartime foes.
Half a century after the U.S. banned the sale of arms to its enemy in the Vietnam War, Obama lifted the entire embargo. Vietnamese President President Tran Dai Quang responded with a promise of more sweeping access to its strategically valuable ports for the U.S. Navy.
Human rights advocates were stunned that Obama would take such a step without first exacting pledges that Vietnam’s communist regime will improve its record of human rights violations.
But Obama said that while he will keep pushing for reform, his decision to strip away the weapons sales ban gives Vietnam more heft against neighbors who “throw their weight around,” an unsubtle reference to China’s growing influence.
The decision remained cloaked in secrecy until Obama’s first full day in Vietnam’s capital, as did his administration’s assessment of another surprise move — an airstrike that killed the leader of the Taliban, who U.S officials said was blocking peace negotiations in Afghanistan. Obama said he ordered the strike, across the border in Pakistan, in the interest of helping Afghanistan “secure its own country.”
Together, Obama’s two moves appeared to lay out the essence of the global mission he hopes to carry out during his final months in office — turning U.S. attention to the prosperity and opportunities he sees in Asia, while leaving behind the bog of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
He is pitching increased trade and enterprise in Vietnam and Japan this week as he tries to rally support in Congress for a Pacific trade deal. The pact would open up markets such as Vietnam, with its rapidly expanding economy and growing middle class, more broadly to U.S. businesses. As an exhibit for his audience back home, Obama also announced new deals for Boeing and General Electric on Monday.
Vietnam, with the fastest-growing economy in Southeast Asia and a strategic position on the South China Sea, has been attractive to the U.S. for some time as both a commercial and military partner. President Clinton helped nudge U.S. public opinion toward a postwar view of the country when he visited Vietnam and eased trade restrictions in the 1990s.
Two years ago, Obama moved to drop part of the arms ban by allowing sales that would boost Vietnam’s maritime surveillance and security capability. Among other changes, his decision allowed American companies to sell boats with machine gun mounts to the government in Hanoi.
In the meantime, Obama’s administration has continued talking with leaders in Vietnam, a government in which the general secretary of the Communist Party is as influential as the president or prime minister. Obama also wanted to work with the chairwoman of the National Assembly.
In the run-up to the president’s visit, emissaries took care not to suggest a quid pro quo for any of the offerings up for discussion. Obama didn’t want to make the access to Vietnames ports contingent on a lift of the ban. Likewise, Vietnamese officials wanted the human rights question separate from the conversations about military talks.
But as Obama’s departure for Hanoi neared on Saturday, one presidential advisor said talks were “trending toward” a series of agreements, all as part of a larger consensus that a stronger, closer friendship would be good for both sides.
Human rights advocates dismissed that logic.
“President Obama just gave Vietnam a reward that they don’t deserve,” said John Sifton, Asia policy director at Human Rights Watch, adding that the U.S. has for years demanded human rights improvements from Vietnam in exchange for closer military or economic ties, but now appears to have set that aside.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) also questioned the administration’s decision to move forward with the arms deal without extracting more concessions.
“The Obama administration’s ‘pivot to Asia’ should be about security ties, but also standing up for brave Vietnamese believers in democracy when they are under assault in Vietnam,” Royce said in a statement.
Administration officials haven’t ruled out the possibility that Vietnam will free some political prisoners and widen the latitude for journalists, bloggers and dissidents to speak out without fear of retribution.
Those reforms should come because they’re the right thing to do, Obama said Monday. The U.S. doesn’t “seek to impose our form of government on Vietnam,” Obama said, but will “continue to speak out on behalf of human rights we believe are universal.”
Obama also argues that the Vietnamese are taking steps to improve working conditions by embracing the labor provisions in his Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Quang, while promising greater access to the Vietnamese ports, did not offer specifics about access to Cam Ranh Bay, the valuable port that served as an American supply point during the Vietnam War.
A reserved spot in Cam Ranh would give the U.S. military the power to respond more quickly to problems in the vicinity, including in the South China Sea, where China is given to territorial threats against its neighbors.
The bay has been open to the U.S. as a service port for some time, but military use has long been off-limits. White House officials believe that the Navy will have access either to that port or to a newly opened international naval port, possibly as early as this fall.
The setting of Monday’s events served to highlight how far the U.S. and Vietnam have evolved in their relationship since that spring day 41 years ago when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.
For his meeting with Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Tron, Obama traveled to the party headquarters. The two men met in a room decorated in red and yellow under an imposing bust of the communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh.
As Obama and Quang met with reporters to make their announcements, they did so in the Presidential Palace, where Ho once lived.
7:56 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional details and reaction.
May 23, 12:40 a.m.: This article has been updated with staff reporting.
This article was originally published on May 22 at 11:38 p.m..