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Vietnam seeks end to US ban on weapons sales

Human rights concerns are still a sticking point

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter (second from left) and Vietnamese Defense Minister General Phung Quang Thanh reviewed an honor guard at the Ministry of Defense in Hanoi on Monday. Carter is on an 11-day trip to Asia.Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images

HANOI — Vietnam’s defense minister, after meeting Monday with his US counterpart Ashton Carter, said that questions about his nation’s suspected human rights violations should not influence any US decision to fully remove its ban on weapons’ sales to Hanoi and that the two nations are planning to conduct military operations together.

Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh also said the United States will help Vietnam prepare to begin participating in United Nations peacekeeping missions.

A Vietnamese military band performed “The Star-Spangled Banner’’ and warmly welcomed Carter on his arrival. The display, once unthinkable between the wartime adversaries, partly represents Vietnam’s concern about the military expansion of its communist neighbor, China.


But Western nations and international human rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns about human rights violations by Vietnam’s authoritarian government.

Vietnam is a one-party state that squelches dissent, and Amnesty International has said that scores are still being detained for exercising freedom of expression. Hanoi says only those who violate laws are jailed.

Asked if the human rights issue should play a role in the US military relationship with Vietnam, Carter would only say that US officials routinely have ‘‘very candid’’ discussions on political and internal issues with Vietnamese leaders and said those issues intersect with security matters.

Speaking at a news conference, Thanh said through an interpreter that the full removal of the weapons sales restrictions would be ‘‘in line with the interests of both countries. And I think we should not attach that decision to the human rights issue.’’ And he offered a broad defense of the government, saying it respects the rights and freedoms of the people.

Carter said the United States will provide $18 million to Vietnam to buy vessels for its coast guard. And the two men signed a joint statement calling for expanded cooperation between the two militaries.


Last October the United States partly lifted its ban on weapons sales to Vietnam, allowing only the sale of lethal maritime security and surveillance capabilities. To date no weapons have been sent to Vietnam.

For the last several years, the administration and the Pentagon focused more on the Asia-Pacific region, in what has been called a strategic pivot after more than a decade of war and intense focus on the Middle East.

The United States insists the rebalance is not aimed at China and its military, but it is working to expand and solidify relations with nations across the region, including many who have been at odds with China’s moves to exert its sovereignty in the South China Sea, which the United States and other nations consider international waters.

Beijing has also bristled as America has moved more ships and other assets to the region, expanded military exercises, and rotated troops more frequently in and out of other Pacific nations.

Another key issue discussed by Carter and Thanh involved the land reclamation projects being conducted by China, Vietnam, and others in the South China Sea.

Carter said that the government of Vietnam is considering stopping its reclamation program and that both nations support a peaceful negotiation process to end the disputed claims in the South China Sea.

China’s rapidly expanding building projects have raised tensions and caused concerns among countries in the region. Beijing’s building program on reefs and atolls now totals more than 2,000 acres, according to the United States.


China is vigorously defending the projects in the face of persistent criticism from US leaders, who say that the building programs will not provide Beijing any additional sovereign land. The United States and others are concerned that China will use the artificial islands as military bases and to assert control over navigation in the South China Sea.