US President Barack Obama's nominee to become his country's next ambassador to Vietnam said it may be time for Washington to consider lifting a ban on the sale and transfer of lethal weapons to the former American enemy.
Ted Osius told his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday that the United States had made clear to the nation's authoritarian government that the ban could not be lifted without significant progress on human rights.
But he said there had been progress in three or four of the nine areas where the US was looking for improvements, including on labour rights, treatment of people with disabilities, allowing more space for civil society and for churches to operate.
Osius said that "may mean it's time to begin exploring the possibility of lifting the ban", but at a pace with which the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and Vietnam would be comfortable.
Any such move would be likely to anger China, which is locked in a territorial standoff with Vietnam and eyes increased US engagement in Asia as an attempt to contain its rise. China recently deployed an oil rig in an offshore area also claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea, a region of growing tension between Beijing and its neighbours.
The US and Vietnam re-established diplomatic relations in 1995, two decades after the end of the Vietnam war, and ties have improved markedly in recent years. In 2007, the US opened the way for trade in non-lethal defence items and services on a case-by-case basis, but it is still prohibited under law from selling or transferring lethal items.
Vietnamese leaders have asked the Obama administration to remove those restrictions, viewing it as a key step to fully normalising relations.