U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has announced increased maritime security assistance for Vietnam and other nations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN.
At a press conference in Hanoi Monday with his Vietnamese counterpart, Pham Binh Minh, Kerry said Washington will provide Vietnam with $18 million, including five fast patrol boats for its Coast Guard.
Other ASEAN nations will get about $14.5 million in assistance to protect their territorial waters.
Kerry denied the new assistance is related to recent tensions with China over maritime territorial disputes, saying the move was part of a "gradual and deliberate expansion" of U.S. support. But he did address the tensions by calling for a peaceful solution to maritime disputes.
"In particular, peace and stability in the South China Sea is a top priority for us and for countries in the region. We are very concerned by and strongly opposed to coercive and aggressive tactics to advance territorial claims."
China has been at the center of several recent territorial disputes, including its new Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea, which is opposed by Japan, South Korea and the U.S. Beijing has had long running tensions with its neighbors, including Vietnam, over its territorial claims to most of the South China Sea.
In addition to discussing maritime security, Secretary Kerry said he also had an open and frank conversation with Minh about human rights.
"There is some progress that is being made and we encourage more progress to be made. There are an increased number of church registrations. There have been increases within the new constitutional process of some additional rights. There are some things that we would have liked to have seen embraced that weren't and we raised those, but this is an ongoing conversation."
Kerry said he had raised individual cases of abuse during his meeting with Minh, although he gave no further details.
Minh described his meeting with Kerry as "constructive" and acknowledged differences with the United States over rights.
Dissident lawyer Nguyen Van Dai told VOA's Vietnamese Service there were signals that some jailed political prisoners could be released after Kerry's visit, but probably not until the Vietnamese New Year next month.
"Particularly relatives of dissident Dinh Dang Dinh, who suffers from severe stomach cancer while serving a six-year jail term for conducting propaganda against the State,' received a notice asking them to submit legal documents to the Supreme Court to be reviewed. Such thing is very rare in Vietnam. Prison officials and officials from the Ministry of Public Security have also been in touch with some political prisoners in jail. It's unclear whether there will be releases but such meetings are irregular and not ordinary."
Kerry will travel next to the Philippines where he will tour typhoon-ravaged Tacloban before returning to Washington.
This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Vietnamese service. Tra Mi contributed from Washington.