HANOI, Vietnam, May 23 (UPI) -- President Barack Obama on Monday praised improved U.S. and Vietnamese relations while he announced the lifting of a decades-long arms embargo against Vietnam.
Obama made the announcement during a joint news conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang. Obama said the move was not directed at balancing China's growing presence in the region, but was the product of a new co-operation and understanding with Vietnam.
"Over the past century, our two nations have known cooperation and then conflict, painful separation, and a long reconciliation. Now, more than two decades of normalized ties between our governments allows us to reach a new moment," Obama said in Hanoi's Presidential Palace. "It's clear from this visit that both our peoples are eager for an even closer relationship, a deeper relationship. And I was moved to see so many people lining the streets as we were driving into town today."
Over 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the Communist country struggles with criticisms over its human rights record. But the threat to many countries in the South China Seas region continues to grow and Vietnam has asked the embargo be lifted for years.
Obama said arms sales would be considered on a "case-by-case" basis.
The relationship between the United States and Vietnam improved after the establishment of the 2013 U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership. Trade between both countries has increased to $45 billion.
In 2015, U.S. exports to Vietnam increased by 23 percent while Vietnam continues to export most of its products to the United States. Obama said the United States still hopes Vietnam improves its human rights record.
"Even as we make important progress ... there continue to be areas where our two governments disagree, including on democracy and human rights. And I made it clear that the United States does not seek to impose our form of government on Vietnam or on any nation," Obama said. "At the same time, we will continue to speak out on behalf of human rights that we believe are universal, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. And that includes the right of citizens, through civil society, to organize and help improve their communities and their country."
Vietnam ranks 175th out of 180 countries, between Sudan and China, in Reporters Without Borders' 2016 World Press Freedom Index, which ranks countries from best to worst depending on press restriction, intimidation and censorship, among other factors -- giving Vietnam a dismal record.
"We believe -- and I believe -- that nations are stronger and more prosperous when these universal rights are upheld, and when our two countries continue to discuss these issues as part of our human rights dialogue in a spirit of constructive and cooperative effort," Obama said.