Nearly 40 years after the United States helicoptered its last soldiers out of Vietnam in an ignominious retreat, Washington is moving closer to lifting an arms embargo on its former enemy, with initial sales likely to help Hanoi deal with growing naval challenges from China.
Senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the initiative said Washington wants to support Vietnam by strengthening its ability to monitor and defend its coastline, and said unarmed P-3 surveillance planes could be one of the first sales.
Such aircraft would also allow Vietnam to keep track of China's increasingly assertive activities in the South China Sea, a potential flash point because of interlocking claims from many countries to its islands and reefs.
Two senior Obama administration officials said discussions on easing the embargo are taking place in Washington and could result in a decision later this year.
"The mood is changing, and it is something we're looking at seriously," said one of the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. "What we have found is a partner in which our interests are converging."
Interest in warmer ties with Vietnam, despite U.S. concerns about its human rights record, aligns with President Barack Obama's strategy to refocus economic, political and military attention toward Asia.
The move to lift the embargo follows a gradual resumption of links between the United States and Vietnam over two decades, which accelerated with a series of high-level diplomatic and military meetings in recent months.
Two senior executives in the U.S. weapons industry told Reuters they expected the U.S. government to lift the arms ban soon. "There is a lot of discussion about allowing weapons sales to Vietnam. It is a promising area for us," said one of the executives, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Vietnam's Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment.
Caught off guard
Vietnam's vulnerability to China was exposed in early May when Beijing positioned a massive oil rig in waters that Hanoi claims as part of its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
While Vietnam has embarked on a multi-billion-dollar military modernization program, its surveillance capabilities are limited, and the unannounced deployment of the drilling platform caught Hanoi by surprise. China moved the rig back toward its coast in mid-July.
The two sides clashed at sea in 1988 when China occupied its first holdings in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. China took full control of another South China Sea archipelago, the Paracels, after a naval showdown with what was South Vietnam in 1974.
The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the South China Sea. China has a separate maritime dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea.
U.S. Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam who led the charge to normalize ties with Vietnam in the early 1990s, said he would shortly present a bipartisan proposal to lift some of the restrictions on arms sales.
McCain was one of four U.S. senators to meet the Hanoi leadership and discuss the arms embargo this summer at a time when Sino-Vietnamese ties were at their lowest ebb in decades.