The United States could help build Vietnam's naval capacity if a ban on selling lethal weapons to the authoritarian nation is lifted, the most senior US military officer to visit Vietnam for decades said yesterday.
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that "in the near term" there would be a discussion in the US about whether to lift the ban introduced over human rights concerns.
Dempsey was speaking to reporters in southern Ho Chi Minh City during a four-day visit to the country during which he has met top military officials to discuss strengthening cooperation.
"The maritime domain is the place of our greatest common interest right now... my recommendation if the ban is lifted will be that we start with that," he said.
Trade has flourished between former wartime foes America and Vietnam since the countries normalised ties in 1995. But military cooperation is limited due to the US ban on sales of weapons.
Hanoi is locked in a bitter maritime dispute with Beijing over disputed waters and island chains in the South China Sea.
In May, Beijing moved an oil rig into waters that Hanoi claims, prompting anti-China riots in Vietnam. Beijing removed the rig in June, claiming its mission had been completed.
Dempsey said he was not asking Vietnam "to choose between being a friend of the United States and a friend of China".
"We've been very clear that we don't take sides in territorial disputes, but we do care very much about how they're resolved," Dempsey said, adding it was "unfortunate" that China had not accepted a proposed freeze on provocative acts in disputed waters.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea and has become increasingly assertive in staking those claims.
Vietnam's leaders have struggled to balance traditionally warm ties with fellow communists in Beijing with anti-China sentiment among the public.
Trade between the US and Vietnam has grown quickly since 1995, making the US one of Vietnam's top trading partners. The US ban on arms sales has been in place since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.