WASHINGTON • United States President Barack Obama is considering whether to lift a three-decades-old arms embargo on Vietnam, US officials say, as he weighs calls to forge closer military ties with Hanoi against concerns over its poor human rights record.
The debate within the US administration is coming to a head amid preparations for Mr Obama's trip to Vietnam this month to bolster ties between Washington and Hanoi, former wartime enemies which are increasingly partners against China's growing territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Full removal of the embargo - which Vietnam has long sought - would sweep away one of the last major vestiges of the Vietnam War era and advance the normalisation of relations begun 21 years ago.
It would also likely anger Beijing, which condemned Mr Obama's partial lifting of the arms ban in 2014 as an interference in the region's balance of power.
On one side of the internal debate, some White House and State Department aides say it would be premature to completely end restrictions on lethal military assistance before Vietnam's communist government has made more progress on human rights.
Mr 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 Mr Obama, described the Vietnamese government as "among the most repressive in the world".
This view is at odds with those of other officials, including many at the Pentagon, who argue that bolstering Vietnam's ability to counter a rising China should take priority, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
Defence Secretary Ash Carter in a congressional testimony late last month said that he would support lifting restrictions on the sale of US weapons to Vietnam. That comment raised eyebrows at the White House, where officials said Mr Obama had yet to rule on the issue.
Boosting the security of allies and partners has been a major thrust of Mr Obama's strategic "pivot" towards the Asia-Pacific region, a centrepiece of his foreign policy.
Even as Vietnam seeks warmer relations with the US, American officials are mindful that suspicions linger among Communist Party conservatives that Washington wants to undermine their country's one-party system.
One major factor in Mr Obama's decision will be whether Vietnam will move forward on major US defence deals, a potential boon for American jobs that could soften congressional opposition to lifting the weapons ban, according to one source close to White House policymaking.
There have been questions about whether Vietnam, which has relied mostly on Russian weapons suppliers since the Cold War, is ready to start buying US-made systems. Diplomats have seen increasing signs that Hanoi is seeking ties with US defence contractors but Washington wants tangible commitments, according to the source.
Vietnam is a big buyer of weapons from Russia, its Cold War-era patron, including Kilo-class submarines and corvettes. It could look to the US for items such as P-3 surveillance planes and missiles to beef up its naval forces and coastal defences.