HANOI, Vietnam — Questions about human rights violations by the Vietnamese government should have no bearing on whether the U.S. should fully remove its ban on lethal weapons' sales to Hanoi, Vietnam's defense minister said Monday after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Defense Minister Phung Quang Thanh and Carter said the two nations are expanding their defense cooperation to include plans to conduct military operations together. The U.S. will also help Vietnam prepare to begin participating in U.N. peacekeeping missions.
Asked if the human rights issue should play a role in the U.S. military relationship with Vietnam, Carter would only say that U.S. officials routinely have "very candid" discussions on political and internal issues with Vietnamese leaders, and said those issues intersect with security matters.
Western nations and international human rights groups have repeatedly raised concerns about human rights violations by Vietnam's authoritarian government. Vietnam is a one-party state that squelches dissent, and Amnesty International has said that scores are still being detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Hanoi says only those who violate laws are put behind bars.
Speaking during a news conference after the meeting with Carter, Thanh said through an interpreter that the full removal of the weapons sales restrictions would be "in line with the interests of both countries. And I think we should not attach that decision to the human rights issue."
And he offered a broad defense of the government, saying it respects the rights and freedoms of the people.
Last October the U.S. partially lifted its ban on weapons sales to Vietnam, allowing only the sale of lethal maritime security and surveillance capabilities. To date no weapons have flowed to Vietnam.
Carter also said that the U.S. will provide $18 million to Vietnam to buy vessels for the Coast Guard. And the two men signed a joint statement calling for expanded cooperation between the two militaries.
For the last several years, the administration and the Pentagon have been focusing more on the Asia-Pacific region, in what's been called a strategic pivot after more than a decade of war and intense focus on the Middle East. The U.S. insists the rebalance is not aimed at China and its growing military, but the U.S. has worked to expand and solidify relations with nations across the region, including many who have been at odds with China's moves to exert its sovereignty in the South China Sea, which the U.S. and others consider international waters.
Beijing has also bristled as America has moved more ships and other assets to the region, expanded military exercises and rotated troops more frequently in and out of other Pacific nations.
Another key issue discussed by Carter and Thanh involved the land reclamation projects being conducted by China, Vietnam and others in the South China Sea.
Carter had said he would urge Vietnamese officials to give up their reclamation projects and Thanh acknowledged the issue did come up. Asked if Vietnam would agree to the request, he was largely noncommittal, saying Hanoi has not expanded its building activities in the South China Sea.
Instead, he said, the work being done is to prevent soil erosion to ensure the safety of the people and military members living on the land. And he said there are military personnel on 19 remote islands or other features.
Carter, however, said the government of Vietnam is considering a permanent halt to the reclamation program, and that they all support a peaceful negotiation process to end the disputed claims in the South China Sea.
China's rapidly expanding building projects has raised tensions and caused concerns among the United States, Vietnam and other countries in the region.
Beijing's building program on reefs and atolls now totals more than 2,000 acres, according to the U.S.
China is vigorously defending the projects in the face of persistent criticism from U.S. leaders, who say that the building programs will not provide Beijing any additional sovereign land. The U.S. and others are concerned that China will use the artificial islands as military bases and to assert control over navigation in the South China Sea.
Most recently, U.S. officials said that China had placed two motorized artillery vehicles on one of its reclamation sites, but they have now been removed.
This is Carter's first trip to Vietnam as defense secretary, and comes as part of an 11-day trip to Asia.
As part of his visit to Vietnam, he gave Thanh a diary that was taken from the body of a Viet Cong soldier by a U.S. Marine who served in Vietnam during the early 1970s. U.S. officials said they are hoping the diary can be returned to the soldier's family.