US eases arms embargo against Vietnam for South China Sea defence
Hanoi allowed to buy lethal defence equipment for maritime security, a boost for its South China Sea presence that will likely anger Beijing
In a decision likely to anger China, the US is partly lifting a 40-year ban on arms sales to former foe Vietnam to help boost defences in the South China Sea.
The easing of the ban, in place since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, would apply only to maritime equipment, State Department officials stressed, and comes as Hanoi makes "modest" improvements to human rights.
"What's driving this is not a sudden desire to transfer military equipment to Vietnam writ large, but a specific need in the region," said one official, highlighting what he called Vietnam's lack of capacity in the disputed waters and America's own national security interests.
"It's useful in trying to deal with the territorial disputes in the South China Sea to bolster the capacity of our friends in the region to maintain a maritime presence in some capacity."
Some 40 per cent of the world's seaborne trade passes through the sea, parts of which are claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, China and the Philippines.
Although the United States has not taken sides in the territorial disputes, it has warned Beijing against "destabilising actions" amid a series of tense incidents. Earlier this year, Beijing placed an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam, sparking deadly riots in the Southeast Asian nation.
"It's an enormous lift psychologically in the relationship between the US and Vietnam. Having that embargo was the thorn in the side of those pushing for closer ties," said Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. "Malaysia and the countries in the region will be happy to see Vietnam enhance its capabilities. One thing they all crave is to find out what the heck China is doing out there everyday. China won't be happy."
So far, Washington has only been allowed to sell unarmed patrol boats to the Vietnamese coastguard since a total ban on military sales was lifted in 2006. That could now change, the officials said. Airborne defence systems would also be considered for sale if they included a maritime capacity.
Secretary of State John Kerry informed his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh of Washington's move "to allow the transfer of defence equipment, including lethal defence equipment, for maritime security purposes only", a senior State Department official said.
Kerry later praised "the transformation" in Vietnam since the US normalised diplomatic relations two decades ago.
"We welcome all steps to strengthen the comprehensive partnership between Vietnam and the United States for the benefit of the two countries, for peace, stability, cooperation, and development in the region and in the world," Vietnam foreign ministry deputy spokeswoman Tran Thi Bich Van said.
A prohibition on sales of other kinds of lethal weapons, such as tanks, will stay in place as Washington pushes Hanoi to improve its human rights record.
"Vietnam will need to make additional progress on human rights for the United States to consider a full lift of the ban on lethal defence articles in the future," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
US officials denied the policy change was "anti-China". "We're not talking about destabilising systems, we're talking about defensive capabilities... These are not things that are going to tip the regional balance," a second State Department official said.
Additional reporting by Bloomberg