Decades after a bitter war, U.S. and Vietnam step toward defense partnership

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Secretary of State John Kerry and Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh meet to talk about easing some restrictions on defense sales to Vietnam. (Pool photo)

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The United States will ease some restrictions on defense sales to Vietnam, the State Department announced Thursday, following a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and his Vietnamese counterpart.

While this change is limited to maritime security-related sales, it is a significant step forward for the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship. The United States previously maintained a full arms embargo on the country, which started during the Vietnam War nearly 40 years ago.

During his meeting with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Kerry emphasized that any change to defense cooperation will be tied to Vietnam’s human rights record, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

“Our security relationship remains under constant review,” Psaki said in a news briefing. “Clearly, there’s more work that needs to be done in areas like human rights, and that’s one thing that the secretary conveyed during the meeting. And this is, of course, a partial lifting.”

The Vietnamese have been pressing the United States to lift its arms embargo, particularly following aggressive acts by China in the disputed the South China Sea.

Earlier this year, China towed a deep-sea oil rig into the contested waters, igniting tensions in the region.

Asked whether Thursday’s announcement, which comes just one day after Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart, was related to the dispute, Psaki was vague.

“Well, in part,” she said, “in order to fully integrate Vietnam into maritime security initiatives that, you know, we have partnerships on throughout the region.”

The United States has condemned Chinese drilling in the South China Sea, and its efforts to intercede in the conflict have been met with ire in Beijing, where the sea as viewed as a vital national interest.

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