US president Barack Obama lifted a decades-old arms export embargo for Vietnam during his first visit to the communist country, looking to bolster a government seen as a crucial, though flawed partner even as he pushes for better human rights from the one-party state.

He announced the full removal of the embargo at a news conference, saying the move was intended to step towards normalising relations with the former war enemy and to eliminate a “lingering vestige of the Cold War”.

“At this stage both sides have developed a level of trust and co-operation,” he said, adding that he expected deepening co-operation between the two nations’ militaries.

Mr 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.

Lifting the arms embargo will be a psychological boost for Vietnam’s leaders as they look to counter an increasingly aggressive China, but there may not be a big jump in sales.

Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang thanked Obama for lifting the embargo.

US politicians 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 more detentions this year.

The United States partially lifted the embargo in 2014, but Vietnam wanted full access as it tries to deal with China’s assertive land reclamation and military construction in nearby seas.

Vietnam has not bought anything, but removing the remaining restrictions opens the way to deeper security co-operation.

After three days in Vietnam, Obama will head to Japan for an international summit and a visit to Hiroshima, where he will be the first sitting US president to visit the site of the first atomic bomb attack.

He arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, late on Sunday, making him the third sitting president to visit the country since the end of the war.

Four decades after the fall of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, and two decades after president Bill Clinton restored relations with the nation, Obama is eager to upgrade relations with an emerging power whose rapidly expanding middle class beckons as a promising market for US goods.


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