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U.S. Lifts Decades-Old Ban On Arm Sales To Vietnam

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The United States is lifting its decades-old ban on arms sales to Vietnam. President Obama announced the move on his first full day of a three-day visit to that country. The president also touted the benefits of a controversial trade deal with Vietnam and other Asian-Pacific countries. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley is on the line. Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So I know the president met with his Vietnamese counterpart - the lifting of this arms embargo drawing a lot of attention. Our colleague David Welna reported elsewhere on the program that this is all about China. Say more about that.

HORSLEY: Well, that is certainly one way this is likely to be perceived. Obama says there's genuine concern, not only in Vietnam, but in other Southeast Asian countries about some of China's aggressive territorial moves in the South China Sea. The U.S. says those disputes should be settled diplomatically and not by China or any other country throwing its weight around. That said, the president insists the U.S. decision to resume arms sales to Vietnam after a half-century's prohibition is a sign of deepening ties between the U.S. and Vietnam, not a shot across the bow at China.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This change will ensure that Vietnam has access to the equipment it needs to defend itself and removes a lingering vestige of the Cold War.

GREENE: OK. Arms - not the only thing that the United States wants to sell to Vietnam. This new Asia-Pacific trade agreement - it's been so controversial in Congress and also on the presidential campaign trail - really a backdrop for this meeting, right?

HORSLEY: Certainly is. Trade is always a big topic on these trips. Just today, a Vietnamese airline announced it's buying one hundred Boeing jets for north of $11 billion. General Electric also struck a deal to help develop wind power in Vietnam. And, you know, U.S. exports to Vietnam jumped by 23 percent last year. Obama thinks they could grow even faster if that big Asia-Pacific trade deal is approved. Now, it faces an uphill battle in Congress where some of the president's fellow Democrats are opposed. All the major presidential candidates are opposed. And yet, Obama says he's confident the trade deal will be approved, despite what he calls its noisy politics.

GREENE: OK, Scott. You and I know this well covering the White House - that news can intervene when your on a...

HORSLEY: (Laughter).

GREENE: ...For a trip like this. Obama was asked today about a drone strike at the U.S. and Afghanistan say killed the leader of the Afghan Taliban. Is the U.S. ramping up its fight against the Taliban?

HORSLEY: Well, Obama says that this drone strike is not part of some major new military offensive in Afghanistan. Rather, he says the Taliban leader, Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, was targeted because Mansour had repeatedly plotted and carried out attacks on some of the nearly 10,000 U.S. troops that are serving in Afghanistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

OBAMA: It is my responsibility as commander-in-chief not to stand by, but to make sure that we send a clear signal to the Taliban and others that we're going to protect our people. And that's exactly the message that has been sent.

HORSLEY: Obama notes that Mansour has also been a roadblock in peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. With his death, Obama says the Taliban should seize this opportunity to pursue those peace talks, which the president calls the only real path for ending this long-running conflict.

GREENE: OK. We've been chatting with NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: Good to be with you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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