WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's nominee to become the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam said Tuesday it may be time for Washington to consider lifting a ban on the sale and transfer of lethal weapons to the former American enemy.
Ted Osius told his Senate confirmation hearing that the U.S. has made clear to the nation's authoritarian government that the ban can't be lifted without significant progress on human rights.
But he said there has been progress in three or four of the nine areas where the U.S. is looking for improvements, including on labour rights, treatment of people with disabilities, allowing more space for civil society and for churches to operate.
Osius said that "may mean it's time to begin exploring the possibility of lifting the ban," but at a pace with which the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and Vietnam would be comfortable.
He was responding to a question from Republican Sen. John McCain who supports such a step.
Any such move would be likely to anger China, which is locked in a territorial standoff with Vietnam and eyes increased U.S. engagement in Asia as an attempt to contain its rise. China recently deployed an oil rig in an offshore area also claimed by Vietnam in the South China Sea, a region of growing tension between China and its neighbours.
The U.S. and Vietnam re-established diplomatic relations in 1995, two decades after the end of the Vietnam War, and ties have improved markedly in recent years. In 2007, the U.S. opened the way for trade in non-lethal defence items and services on a case-by-case basis, but it is still prohibited under law from selling or transferring lethal items.
Vietnamese leaders have asked the Obama administration to remove those restrictions, viewing it as a key step to fully normalizing relations.
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.
Osius acknowledged the improvements to date have been modest, but he said "now is the time" for Washington to press Vietnam further to improve human rights and governance, because given Hanoi's eagerness to participate in a U.S.-backed, trans-Pacific free trade pact currently under negotiation, and because of the "strategic situation" it faces with China.
"There's really no better time than this year given the Vietnamese interest in a deepening partnership with us," he said.
Osius is a veteran diplomat who has served in Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines. His appointment as ambassador to Vietnam has to be confirmed by the Foreign Relations Committee and the full Senate.
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