Hanoi(dpa) – Senior US and Vietnamese military officials discussed weapon sales Monday while pledging closer security ties between the two former combatants, amid concerns over possible “mishaps” in maritime disputes with China.
“The only thing we desire is to establish a friendly relationship with mutual understanding,” Defence Minister General Phung Guang Thanh told his US counterpart Ashton Carter.
Thanh also said his nation’s human rights record was good and should not prevent the US from lifting its ban on selling lethal weaponry to Vietnam.
The joint press conference emphasized the rising stakes as China, Vietnam and the Philippines tussle over territory in the disputed Spratly Islands.
China’s moves far from its internationally recognized borders have also put it in conflict with the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, while the US, Japan and others warn that the potential for conflict could disrupt vital shipping lanes.
Carter noted that a recent joint US-Vietnam naval exercises included practising “the code of unplanned encounters at sea.”
The US has pledged 18 million dollars enable Vietnam to purchase US vessels to strengthen its coast guard. It also recently provided Vietnam naval forces with new speedboats to enable a swifter response to crises.
Vietnam’s thin coastal defences were rattled last year when China moved an exploration rig into waters around the disputed Paracel Island east of Danang. One Vietnamese vessel sank after being rammed by a larger, faster Chinese boat.
More recently, the focus has shifted to the Spratlys, where China is building an artificial island atop Mischief Reef.
Vietnam, which in recent years added a few Russian submarines to its fleet, would welcome the opportunity to buy weaponry from the US, Thanh said.
“That is not only the interest of Vietnam, but also the interest of the two countries,” Thanh said. “So don’t attach that matter with human rights. The rights of people in Vietnam are ensured very well.”
Thanh rejected Carter’s call for a halt to construction projects in the Spratlys pending a diplomatic resolution.
“The scope and characteristic of our work is purely civilian,” he said.