US partially lifts 40-year ban on Vietnam arms sales

2014-10-03 08:41
US Secretary of State John Kerry. (AFP)

US Secretary of State John Kerry. (AFP)

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Washington - The US is to partially lift a four-decade-old arms embargo against its former foe Vietnam, the state department said on Thursday, in a landmark decision set to infuriate China.

Secretary of State John Kerry informed his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Min during talks on Thursday that Washington was adjusting its current policy "in order to allow the transfer of defence equipment, including lethal defence equipment, for maritime security purposes only," a senior state department official said.

The US ban on selling lethal weapons to Hanoi was being changed "because of our broader strategic interests in helping the countries of the region boost their ability to know what's going on in the maritime environment and to have a presence", he added.

The ban has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

However, a prohibition on sales of other kinds of lethal weapons would stay in place as Washington pushes Hanoi to improve its human rights situation.

US officials denied the policy change was "anti-China", saying it was for defensive purposes because of "a lack of maritime capacity" in the region. But it comes amid months of tensions over disputed islands in the South China and East China Seas.

'Destabilising actions'

Although the United States has not taken sides in the territorial disputes, it has warned Beijing against "destabilising actions" in the South China Sea.

The sea is claimed in part by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia as well as China and the Philippines.

China has been involved in a string of tense maritime incidents with rival claimants in the sea. Earlier this year it placed an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam, sparking deadly riots in the Southeast Asian nation.

US sales to Vietnam would be decided on a case-by-case basis, in close consultation with the US Congress, and would be heavily focused on equipping the Vietnamese coastguard, the state department officials said.

So far, Washington has only been allowed to sell unarmed patrol boats to the Vietnamese coastguard. That could now change, for example, the officials said.

But they acknowledged that airborne defence systems would also be considered for sale if they included a maritime capacity.

"The secretary informed deputy prime minister and foreign minister Minh that the state department has taken steps to allow for the future transfer of maritime security-related defense articles to Vietnam," spokesperson Jen Psaki told reporters.

"This policy supports Vietnam's efforts to improve its maritime domain awareness and maritime security capabilities," she added.

Read more on:    john kerry  |  china  |  us  |  vietnam  |  maritime

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