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.
Since then, tensions in the South China Sea have only escalated, as China has greatly expanded land reclamation projects to build islands on existing reefs and atolls. On Friday, defense officials revealed that China had put two large artillery vehicles on one of the artificial islands, fueling fears in the U.S and across the Asia-Pacific that China will try to use the land building projects for military purposes or to restrict navigation in the South China Sea.
China has defended its activities in the South China Sea as legitimate. And, when asked about images of weapons on the islands, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she was "not aware of the situation you mention."
Vietnam is a one-party state that squelches dissent, and Amnesty International has said that scores are still being detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
The U.S. has not transferred lethal arms to Vietnam since communists took power at the end of the Vietnam War. A 1984 embargo prohibited arms sales because of concern over the authoritarian government's human rights record.
Relations between the U.S. and Vietnam were normalized in 1995, some 20 years after the war's end. Washington approved non-lethal arms sales in 2006, and ties have since deepened further, particularly as the Obama administration has sought to expand U.S. engagement in Asia.
Vietnam has been pressing for the lifting on the U.S. ban, and officials there have argued that if the country can't buy weapons from the U.S., it could still buy from other nations. Russia is currently Vietnam's main source of armaments.