It was Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang who unexpectedly broke the news at a joint press conference with U.S. President Barack Obama in Hanoi after their bilateral talks. He said the United States is lifting its long-standing weapons ban on Vietnam.
Quang said Washington and Hanoi have agreed to strengthen their partnership in substance and in depth, making cooperation the cornerstone in military assistance, trade, health care and people-to-people exchanges. Quang welcomed the move as an end to a “painful chapter.”
When it was his turn, President Obama confirmed the news: “The United States is fully lifting the ban on sale of military equipment to Vietnam that's been in place for some 50 years," he said, adding "Sales will need to still meet strict requirements, including those on human rights, but this change ensures Vietnam has access to equipment it needs to defend itself."
WATCH: President Obama confirms lifting of arms embargo
President Obama said over the past century, the U.S. and Vietnam have known cooperation and conflict, and that after more than two decades of normalized relations, ties have “reached a new moment.”
Responding to a reporter’s question about increased Chinese aggression in the region, Obama said the decision was not based on China.
He said it was based on the desire to complete a long process that began decades ago by many veterans of the Vietnam War, including he said, former prisoner of war, Republican Senator John McCain.
China reacted cautiously to the announcement Monday. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chuying said, "As a close neighbor to Vietnam, we welcome normal and cooperative relationship between Vietnam and other countries, and we certainly hope such development of bilateral relations is conducive to regional peace and security."
She would not comment on why Hanoi wanted the arms embargo lifted, saying only, "Maybe you should ask Vietnam. The arms embargo is the product of the Cold War. It should not have existed. We hope for a normal relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam.”
But on Sunday, Beijing’s state-run Xinhua News Agency published an editorial that said “the calculating move will serve only Washington's own strategic purposes as the United States seeks a rebalance in the Asia-Pacific.”
President Obama said the U.S. and Vietnam still have differences over human rights, and that each individual weapons sale will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
But he said the time is right to lift a “blanket ban” based on an ideological division.
He cited a new level of trust and dialogue between the militaries of the two countries, and signaled there may be more U.S. ships coming to port in Vietnam “at the invitation” of the Hanoi government.
The lifting of the lethal weapons ban prompted a sharp response from Phil Robertson; deputy director, Asia director, Human Rights Watch: “As Obama was lifting the U.S. arms embargo, the Vietnam authorities were busy arresting journalist Doan Trang and other human rights activists and bloggers on the street and in their houses. In one fell swoop, President Obama has jettisoned what remained of U.S. leverage to improve human rights in Vietnam – and basically gotten nothing for it.”
The two leaders also announced new business deals amounting to $16 billion.