The United States on Thursday partially lifted a long-time ban on lethal weapon sales to Vietnam to help it improve maritime security, a historic move that comes nearly 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War.
"The State Department has taken steps to allow for the future transfer of maritime security-related defense articles to Vietnam," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told a briefing.
State Department officials told a separate briefing that the decision would ease a ban on sales of lethal weapons to Vietnam that has been in place since the end of the Vietnam War, although only for maritime security purposes at this point.
They said requests from Vietnam for any specific weapons would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
The focus would be on helping Vietnam patrol and defend itself in the East Sea, the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea, amid growing naval challenges from China, the officials said, but future weapons sales could include airborne systems as well as ships.
Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh last week said his country would welcome an end to the arms embargo after Reuters reported that Washington was nearing such a decision.
US sources have said Washington could eventually sell Vietnam used US P-3 Orion surveillance planes built by Lockheed Martin Corp, which are being replaced by newer P-8A aircraft built by Boeing Co.
The State Department officials declined to name any specific weapons systems that could be under consideration or give a timetable for expected agreement on the first such deal. They said providing surplus U.S. defense equipment to Vietnam could trim the cost, but Vietnam would need to contribute as well.
"This is a very important first step that will engender future cooperation," said one of the officials. "This policy revision enables us to ... provide Vietnam the ability to defend itself in the context of its presence in the South China Sea."
The officials said they did not expect backlash from China since the focus would be on providing Vietnam with defensive systems. "This is not an anti-China move," said one of the officials.
During a high-profile visit to Vietnam in mid-August, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said if the ban was lifted the US would begin with assets that would make the Vietnamese People’s Navy more capable in the maritime domain.
"I think the maritime domain is the place of our greatest common interest right now, common security interest," Dempsey told a group of reporters.
"It could mean any number of capabilities, which would lead intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and even potentially some weapons for their fleet that they currently don’t have," he said.
Several analysts, however, call the easing of the embargo mostly "symbolic".
"Almost all Vietnamese weaponry is based on Russian systems, which are reliable and cheaper. There are only a handful of weapons systems from the US that the Vietnam would be really interested in, in particularly anti-submarine warfare," Zachary Abuza, a Southeast Asia analyst, told Thanh Nien News.
"But the ban is a diplomatic irritant and an anachronism. It needs to be lifted," he said.
The easing of the embargo follows a gradual resumption of links between the United States and Vietnam over two decades.
US industry executives see Vietnam as a promising market for their equipment given the U.S. military's strategic rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region.