U.S. Sen. John McCain said Friday in Vietnam that it's time for the United States to ease the ban on selling lethal arms to the communist country, saying it has progressed on human rights.
McCain told reporters in Hanoi that the easing should happen gradually, but he hoped it could begin as early as next month.
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"It should be limited at first to those defensive capabilities such as coast guard and maritime systems that are purely for external security," he said.
The Obama administration has not announced any move to ease the ban, although during a visit to Hanoi in December, Secretary of State John Kerry announced up to $18 million in aid to provide Vietnam's coast guard with five new fast patrol boats — part of a broader U.S. effort to help Southeast Asian nations to defend waters they claim as their own.
The Bush administration began allowing non-lethal arms sales to Vietnam in 2007. In June, Barack Obama's nominee to become the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam said it may be time for Washington to consider lifting a ban on the sale and transfer of lethal weapons to the former American enemy. But the nominee, Ted Osius, told his Senate confirmation hearing — in response to a question from McCain — that the U.S. has made clear to Vietnam that the ban can't be lifted without significant progress on human rights.
McCain noted some progress, including signing a convention against torture, releasing some dissidents and giving more space for religious worship, but he said the degree to which the ban was eased would "depend greatly" on Vietnam improving human rights further.
Rights groups remain deeply critical of Vietnam's record. It remains a one-party state that squelches dissent. Human Rights Watch says that the number of people sentenced in political trials in Vietnam has increased every year since 2010, and that at least 63 people were imprisoned for peaceful political expression last year.
The Republican and former prisoner of war in Vietnam said his position on easing the ban further has nothing to do with China's recent deployment of an oil rig in a disputed part of the South China Sea. China has been more assertive on its maritime claims and could be angered by closer military ties between Vietnam and the United States.
Russia is Vietnam's main source of armaments, and Vietnam has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to build more vessels to improve its maritime capability.