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U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Vietnam's Vice Minister of Defence Nguyen Chi Vinh, next to Vietnam's President, Tran Dai Quang (2nd R) during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, May 23, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

U.S. lifts arms embargo on old foe Vietnam

U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Monday that Washington will fully lift an embargo on sales of lethal arms to Vietnam, underlining warming relations between the former foes amid rising tensions with Beijing over the South China Sea.

At a lavish state luncheon in Hanoi, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang toasted Obama’s first visit to the country as the arrival of a warm spring after a cold winter.

Obama, the third U.S. president to visit Vietnam since ties were restored in 1995, has made a strategic ‘rebalance’ toward Asia-Pacific a centerpiece of his foreign policy.

Vietnam, where the United States was at war until 1975, has become a critical part of that strategy amid concerns about China’s growing military might and its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

The decision to lift the arms trade ban, which followed intense debate within the Obama administration, suggested that U.S. concerns about China’s assertiveness outweighed arguments that Vietnam had not done enough to improve its human rights record and that Washington would lose leverage for reforms.

Obama told a joint news conference with Quang that disputes in the South china Sea should be resolved peacefully and not by whoever “throws their weight around”, but insisted that the arms embargo move was not linked to China.

“The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations, it’s based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving towards normalization with Vietnam,” he said, adding later that his visit to a former foe showed “hearts can change and peace is possible”.

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