Ray of hope for Vietnam
said the embargo lifting was still “under periodic review” and would be looked at seriously, although he made it clear Vietnam’s commitment to human rights would be central to any decision.
“One of the important factors that would make a lift of the ban possible would be to continue forward momentum in meeting universal human rights standards and progress in important legal reform,” Russel told reporters.
Malinowski is not scheduled to speak to media during his trip.
It was not clear whether Obama was leaning for or against ending the embargo ahead of his trip, which will make him the third consecutive U.S. president to visit Vietnam.
Obama eased the ban on lethal arms sales to Vietnam in October 2014, allowing shipments of defensive maritime equipment to help Hanoi build up its deterrent to China’s pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea, which conflict with those of its neighbours such as Vietnam and U.S. ally the Philippines.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said lifting the arms ban would be “undeserved at this time.” The group, in an April 27 letter sent to Obama, described the Vietnamese government as “among the most repressive in the world.”
While a number of U.S. lawmakers favour closer military ties with Vietnam because of shared concerns about China, others have deep misgivings.
Democratic U.S. Representative Loretta Sanchez, a member of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam who also has a large Vietnamese-american voting bloc in her California district, said lifting the embargo would be “giving a free pass to a government that continually harasses, detains and imprisons its citizens.”
Obama has the power to bypass Congress to lift the embargo. But his administration would hope for support from Republican U.S. Senator John Mccain, a decorated former prisoner of war in North Vietnam who backed the 2014 partial lifting.
Some U.S. officials see signs that Vietnam is starting to pay attention to human rights criticism.
But concerns remain over the government’s heavy-handedness toward political opponents and treatment of workers and there is worry that Washington will lose some leverage if it gives up the arms embargo without securing concessions for reforms.
One senior U.S. official suggested that it might be best for now to “set the issue of the lethal weapons ban aside.”
“These things do take time,” the official said. But others said the door should remain open to lifting the embargo as preparations proceed for Obama’s visit.
If Obama opts against removing the ban for now, another option that might mollify the Vietnamese would be creating a “working group” to map out the path toward doing so, one US official said. — Reuters
US President Barack Obama