US ready to lift restrictions on arms sales ?

The defence secretary has made clear his support for arms sales to Vietnam

The defence secretary has made clear his support for arms sales to Vietnam

Washington’s top human rights official will visit Vietnam next week amid suggestions of a policy tussle in the US administration over relaxing arms sales to Vietnam.

The Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Tom Malinowski, will urge Vietnam to release political prisoners without conditions.

The state department said he would also encourage reforms that will make Vietnam’s laws consistent with its human rights obligations.

The US has long insisted that Vietnam improve human rights as a condition for the full lifting of a ban on the sale of lethal military equipment to Vietnam.

The Defence Secretary, Ash Carter, however, said at the end of last month that the remaining restrictions would be scrapped.

He gave no further details after making the laconic one word reply to a question from Senator John McCain.

It remains unclear whether President Obama has signed off on an agreement to lift all restrictions on arms sales, given the continuing arrest, harassment and prosecution of democracy advocates and other government critics in Vietnam.

The ban was partially lifted in 2014 when the US allowed sales of some maritime equipment to help Vietnam meet the growing naval challenge from China in the South China Sea.

Analysts say that a full lifting of the embargo would send a strong signal to China. It could also lead to the sale of drones and other high tech equipment to Vietnam as it tries to build up a credible deterrent to aggression from Beijing.

Vietnam is already emerging as a key element in the US strategy to confront growing Chinese power in the region and the wider western Pacific.

However, the lack of any improvement in Vietnam’s human rights record, and the new leadership’s continuing intolerance of dissent, remains an obstacle to warmer relations.

Mr Malinowski may extract some concessions from Vietnamese leaders during his visit to Hanoi next week, but few expect a significant easing of the repressive political climate.

Political activists in Vietnam are concerned  that even token concessions could be enough for President Obama to lift restrictions on arms sales to a former enemy that looks increasingly like a strategic partner.