US should allow sale of defensive weapons to Vietnam: lawmaker

By Lolita C. Baldor ,AFP

SINGAPORE — America needs to provide Vietnam with more defensive weapons, U.S. Sen. John McCain said Saturday as tensions in the Asia Pacific region heightened over China’s expanding land reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

But U.S. efforts so far are focused on delivering some of the limited maritime weapons allowed under last fall’s easing of the weapons sales ban on Hanoi.

According to a senior U.S. official, Defense Secretary Ash Carter will meet with Vietnam officials in the coming days to discuss the U.S providing the defensive maritime weapons already allowed. Carter spoke at an international security conference here Saturday at the start of an 11-day Asia trip.

McCain, who also was attending the International Institute for Strategic Studies summit, wants to see a gradual removal of the U.S. ban, and said the U.S. should provide additional defensive weapons that could be used in case of a conflict with China. He added that the U.S. should continue its ban on weapons used for crowd control or to commit human rights abuses.

The U.S. last October partially lifted its ban on weapons sales to Vietnam to boost the country’s ability to defend itself in the South China Sea. Only the sale of lethal maritime security and surveillance capabilities are allowed on a case-by-case basis, including boats and air assets based on an evaluation of Vietnam’s needs. But the U.S. official said that to date no weapons have flowed to Vietnam.

The official was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.

U.S. officials said last fall that easing the ban recognized improvements by Vietnam’s authoritarian government on human rights. But it also was largely driven by America’s national security interests.