Vietnam would welcome an end to the arms embargo clamped on it by the United States, the country's foreign minister said on Wednesday, as he played down the notion that the move would inflame Hanoi's maritime dispute with China.
Pham Binh Minh, who also serves as Vietnam's deputy prime minister, was responding to a Reuters report on Tuesday that said Washington was moving closer to lifting the embargo to help Vietnam deal with growing naval challenges from China.
U.S. officials with knowledge of the initiative said unarmed Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion surveillance planes could be among the first U.S. sales, to strengthen Vietnam's ability to monitor and defend its coastline.
Minh suggested that lifting the arms embargo was almost a routine step in the gradual resumption of links between the United States and Vietnam, which accelerated with a series of high-level diplomatic and military meetings in recent months.
"Nearly 20 years ago, we normalized relations with the United States and in 2013 we set up a comprehensive partnership with the United States," Pham said during an event at the Asia Society in New York, a few blocks from where the United Nations General Assembly was taking place.
"So the relation is normal and the ban on the lethal weapons to Vietnam is abnormal," Pham continued. "So we lift the ban, meaning that the relation is normal, even though we have normalized the relation 20 years ago."
Although he said maritime disputes with China and other countries over parts of the South China Sea were the "most disturbing" flashpoints emerging in the region, he laughed off the idea that ending the embargo would anger China, his country's largest trading partner.
Tensions flared in May when Beijing unexpectedly placed a large oil rig in waters that Hanoi claims as part of its 200-nautical-mile (370-km) exclusive economic zone. China moved the rig back toward its coast in mid-July.
Minh, who will visit Washington early next month for talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said Vietnam could still buy weapons from other countries whether or not Washington lifts the embargo.
The country buys many weapons from Russia, its Cold War-era patron.