The United States lifted a decades-old embargo on arms sales to Vietnam, US President Barack Obama said Monday in Hanoi.

"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," said Obama told a press conference with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang.

The move comes amidst increasing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, where Vietnam and other South-East Asian countries have been engaged in bitter territorial disputes with Beijing.

"The decision to lift the ban was not based on China or any other considerations," Obama said.

Rather, he framed it as a desire to complete the process of normalizing US-Vietnamese relations following a lengthy war between the two countries in the 1960s and 1970s.

"The process began with some very courageous and difficult conversations decades ago, including [those] led by our current Secretary of State John Kerry" and other war veterans, Obama said.

Kerry attended the press conference in Hanoi, sitting in the front row along with other US diplomats.

"Over time what we've seen is a progressive deepening and broadening of the (bilateral) relationship," Obama said.

"What became apparent to me and my administration at this point was, given all the work we do together across the spectrum of economic, trade, security, humanitarian efforts, it was appropriate for us not to have a blanket, across-the-board ban," he said.

The decision was likely to be met with scepticism among critics who had hoped Obama would extract more concessions from Hanoi on protecting and advancing human rights issues. 

"There continue to be areas where our two governments disagree, including on democracy and human rights," said Obama, noting that the one-party state of Vietnam had made "modest progress" in some areas.

Lifting the ban does not mean Vietnam can buy arms totally freely. Sales will still need to meet "strict requirements, including those relating to human rights," Obama said.

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