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Obama: Lifting Arms Embargo About 'Progressive Deepening' of Vietnam Relations

President Obama and Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang shake hands at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on May 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

President Obama said his decision to lift the arms embargo against Vietnam was about the “progressive deepening and broadening of the relationship” with the communist country, but one House chairman said he should have used the leverage to demand human rights improvements.

Human Rights Watch calls the situation in Vietnam “dire,” as “basic rights, including freedom of speech, opinion, press, association, and religion, are restricted” and “rights activists and bloggers face harassment, intimidation, physical assault, and imprisonment.”

The White House said in a fact sheet that it’s “pursuing providing 18 MetalShark 45-foot patrol boats, as well as training and maritime law enforcement equipment to the country’s Coast Guard” at the request of Vietnam, in addition to other security cooperation.

In a joint press conference today at the presidential palace in Hanoi with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang, Obama said “the decision to lift the ban” on weapons sales to Vietnam “was not based on China or any other considerations.”

“It was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalization with Vietnam — a process that began with some very courageous and difficult conversations decades ago, including led by our current Secretary of State John Kerry, and Senators Tom Carper and John McCain, and a whole bunch of other Vietnam veterans, as well as their counterparts in the Vietnamese government,” he said.

“What became apparent to me and my administration at this point was, is that given all the work we do together across the spectrum of economic, trade, security and humanitarian efforts, that it was appropriate for us not to have a blanket across-the-board ban. Now, every sale that we make to everybody is viewed as a particular transaction, and we examine what’s appropriate and what’s not, and there’s some very close allies of ours where we may not make a particular sale until we have a better sense of how that piece of equipment may end up being used. So we’re going to continue to engage in the case-by-case evaluations of these sales,” the president continued.

“But what we do not have is a ban that’s based on an ideological division between our two countries, because we think, at this stage, both sides have established a level of trust and cooperation, including between our militaries, that is reflective of common interests and mutual respect.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who sent Obama a letter earlier this month urging the president to advocate for human rights on his Vietnam trip, said the lifting of the embargo is a missed opportunity.

“The security situation in Southeast Asia is driving several countries to seek closer military ties with the United States. That’s influence the administration could use to press Vietnam to better its very bad human rights record,” Royce said. “But that’s now leverage lost with today’s action.”

“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.”

Standing by Quang’s side, Obama admitted that human rights “is an area where we still have differences.”

“There’s been modest progress on some of the areas that we’ve identified as a concern. TPP actually is one of the things that’s prompting a series of labor reforms here in Vietnam that could end up being extraordinarily significant,” Obama said. “But that is not directly tied to the decision around military sales.”

Quang claimed human rights are “clearly codified and stipulated in the national constitution of Vietnam.”

“The consistent position and viewpoint of the Vietnamese state and government is to protect and promote human rights,” the Vietnamese leader said. “…Over the past 30 years of reform in Vietnam, Vietnam has achieved remarkable progress in socioeconomic development, defense and security, especially in protection and promotion of human rights and the rights of every citizen in Vietnam.”

“Those achievements have been highly recognized and officiated by the international community. One of the examples — very good examples to showcase Vietnam’s progress, that Vietnam has been elected as a member of the UN Human Rights Council in 2016.”

The Human Rights Council has been deeply criticized over the years for welcoming human rights abusers as members, including China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.