Vietnam eyes US arms sales, downplays China impact

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NEW YORK (AP) — Vietnam said Wednesday it wants to be able to buy weapons from the United States and that regional powerhouse China should not be alarmed.

As relations between the U.S. and Vietnam warm, the U.S. is moving closer to lifting a ban on lethal arms exports applied after the communist victory in the Vietnam War.

Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh said it's been nearly 20 years since Washington and Hanoi normalized relations, and so it's "abnormal" to retain the ban.

"If we do not buy weapons from the United States, we (would) still buy from other countries," Minh said at the Asia Society. "Why should China bother about that?"

Despite fraternal ties between the ruling parties of Vietnam and China, tensions spiked this year after China deployed a deep-sea oil rig near the disputed Paracel islands. Vessels from the two sides repeatedly rammed each other near the rig. The standoff triggered deadly anti-China protests and riots in Vietnam.

Minh, who is also Vietnam's foreign minister and is attending the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, said there was an unprecedented risk of military conflict in Asian seas. But he was careful to avoid direct criticism of China.

Washington has yet to announce a lifting of the weapons ban but is starting to build military ties with Vietnam, its former foe.

In August, U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey became the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit Vietnam since 1971. He told reporters at the time that if the U.S. does lift the ban, it should start by boosting Vietnam's navy.

That will anger China, which eyes increased U.S. military engagement in Asia as an attempt to contain its rise.

Russia is currently Vietnam's main source of armaments. Vietnam has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to build more vessels to improve its maritime capability.

Human rights groups remain deeply critical of Vietnam, a one-party state that squelches dissent and continues to imprison government critics.

Dempsey has said there's a growing sense from the U.S. administration and lawmakers that Vietnam has made progress on human rights issues.

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