Obama Vietnam
Obama Vietnam

As he did with Myanmar, Cuba and Iran, the decision by U.S. President Barack Obama to lift the more than 50-year ban on weapon sales to Vietnam was his latest move to highlight a foreign policy rooted in diplomacy and engagement.

"Over the past century, our two nations have known cooperation and then conflict, painful separation, and a long reconciliation," Obama said. "Now, more than two decades of normalized ties between our governments allows us to reach a new moment."

Standing alongside his Vietnamese counterpart, Tran Dai Quang, in Hanoi on Monday, Obama noted how lifting the ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam would remove a vestige of the Cold War, strengthen defense ties and, more importantly, underscore U.S. commitment to the normalization of ties with its one-time adversary.

"If you consider where we have been and where we are now, the transformation in the relations between our two countries is remarkable," Obama noted during a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in the Vietnamese capital.

Eye toward Asia

In his remarks, the U.S. president downplayed the assertion that lifting the embargo was aimed at countering China's influence and activities in the region — particularly with respect to the South China Sea.

Obama Vietnam
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang attend a press conference at the International Convention Center in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 23, 2016.

Instead, he noted that one of his highest foreign policy priorities is for the United States to play a greater role in the Asia-Pacific.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies' Greg Poling says that while China is a factor in lifting the embargo, the real issue is deepening ties with Vietnam and the U.S. commitment to Asia as a whole.

"As far as the effort of normalizing the relationship that started 21 years ago, this was overdue, or at least it was time. And it sends a real message that the U.S. intends to engage Vietnam just as it would any other state in the region, and that it is committed to the rebalance to Asia," he said.

Poling, CSIS' Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, acknowledged that the president does benefit from a confluence of the U.S. pivot to Asia and China's recent behavior.

"As the U.S. was seeking to engage these nations anew, all of them were terrified of the intentions of a rising China, and welcomed the U.S. in," Poling said. "Eventually the arms embargo was going to be lifted, but the fear that China has put into Hanoi helped accelerate that by several years."

Residents gather at the street to wait for motorcade transporting U.S. President Barack Obama in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 23, 2016.

Bill Wise, Associate Director of the Southeast Asia Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, notes that the lifting of the embargo comes at a critical time for Vietnam.

"Their air and naval forces need modernizing. They will never reach parity with China, but they need to develop their own forces, their own capabilities so they can increase the price that China would pay for any further aggression in the South China Sea," Wise said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged the regional challenges in remarks to reporters Monday.

"Countries in the region are coming to the United States more and more, to do more and more with us, because of their general concern with the security environment in the region," he said.

Republican U.S. Senator Bob Corker welcomed the move, noting, "I've been supportive of the partial lifting of arms sales restrictions to help Vietnam strengthen its maritime defenses, and I look forward to continuing to examine proposed sales for that purpose."

Human rights

But not everyone welcomes Obama's decision to scrap the U.S. arms embargo on Vietnam.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, also a Republican, issued a statement noting the administration has now lost leverage to press Vietnam on its human rights record.

U.S. President Barack Obama (left) and Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang review an honor guard at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 23, 2016.

"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 noted.

Human Rights Watch's Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson echoed that sentiment in an interview with VOA.

"Today, we have seen President Obama essentially reward Vietnam even though they haven't done anything of note on human rights. They haven't repealed repressive laws. They haven't released any significant number of political prisoners. They haven't made any substantial pledges," Robertson said.

In his remarks Monday, Obama noted the U.S. will continue to press Vietnam on universal human rights.

SAIS' Bill Wise dismisses the suggestion that the U.S. is giving up leverage, noting the need to balance strategic interests with that of promoting human rights.

"We have a very strong interest in promoting democratic values and human rights in Vietnam, and I cannot imagine that the president will stop, or any president will stop, pursing those courses."