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US Eases Ban on Arms Sales to Vietnam

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) shakes hands with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh before a working lunch at the State Department in Washington, October 2, 2014.

The United States has partially lifted a decades-long ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam; a historic move that comes nearly four decades after the end of the Vietnam War.

The U.S. State Department on Thursday described the move as "allowing for the future transfer of maritime security-related" military hardware to its former foe. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. is aware of human rights concerns in Vietnam, saying sales will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

"Our security relationship remains under constant review. Clearly there is more work that needs to be done in areas like human rights and that's one thing that [Secretary of State John Kerry] conveyed during the meeting and this is of course a partial lifting," said Psaki.

Vietnam is facing increasingly aggressive Chinese territorial claims to large swaths of the South China Sea and its mineral and energy treasure. Vietnamese maritime patrols have faced off against Chinese naval forces on several occasions as tensions have risen in recent years.

U.S. Senator John McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam, welcomed the deal. But Reuters quoted him as calling for improvements in the Hanoi government's human rights record.

The U.S. move drew immediate protest from Human Rights Watch, a global rights organization that has long protested against Hanoi's treatment of opposition figures and ethnic and religious minorities.

HRW spokesman John Sifton described Vietnam's record on political prisoners as "bad and getting worse." In claiming the U.S. move is premature, he also told the Associated Press that numerous churches in Vietnam are still unable to register with the government, and therefore remain illegal.

The easing of the ban is the latest move in the gradual resumption of ties between Washington and Hanoi during the past two decades.

Relations between the two governments were normalized in 1995 -- two decades after the end of the war. Bilateral trade has since soared to more than $20 billion annually.

Secretary Kerry informed Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Phan Bin Minh of the U.S. move as the two diplomats met Thursday in Washington.