HO CHI MINH CITY — 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 U.S. military officer to visit Vietnam for decades said Saturday. General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “in the near term” there would be a discussion in the United States 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 military cooperation. “The maritime domain is the place of our greatest common interest right now … and 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 normalized ties in 1995. But military cooperation is limited due to a U.S. ban on sales of lethal weapons. Hanoi is currently locked in a bitter maritime dispute with Beijing over disputed waters and island chains in the South China Sea. In May, Beijing moved a deep sea oil rig into waters that Hanoi claims, setting off violent anti-China riots in Vietnam and triggering a high-seas standoff around the rig. Beijing removed the rig in July, claiming its mission has been successfully 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, even waters approaching the coasts of its neighbors, and has become increasingly assertive in staking those claims. Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have competing claims to parts of the sea. Vietnam’s authoritarian leaders have struggled to balance traditionally warm ties with fellow communists in Beijing with widespread anti-China sentiment among the population.