By Martin Petty
HANOI (Reuters) - U.S. Senator John McCain said on Friday he was confident of bipartisan support in Washington for easing restrictions on arms sales to Vietnam as early as next month.
Together with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, McCain met Vietnam's prime minister and the ruling Communist Party's chief on Friday. Both senators said Vietnam needed better maritime capabilities and its human rights record had improved enough to justify more military support from Washington.
The push to roll back the three-decade old arms embargo comes as Vietnam, like U.S. allies the Philippines and Japan, is locked in a dispute with an increasingly assertive China over sovereignty in the energy-rich South China Sea.
"The time has come for the United States to begin easing our lethal arms embargo on Vietnam," McCain told reporters in Hanoi. "We hope to begin the easing of that as early as September ... We're not guaranteeing it but we do believe we have very strong bipartisan support."
Washington wants to court Vietnam as a new ally in Southeast Asia to counter the growing influence of its communist neighbor, China. But Vietnam's record of arresting and jailing its critics and suppressing free speech has made it difficult to build a case for expanding military ties.
McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, is the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He and Whitehouse were among four senators to visit the country since early May, when China moved an oil rig into waters Hanoi claims are its exclusive economic zone. Senator Bob Corker met the Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi on Tuesday.
ROW OVER RIG
Beijing's move sparked a row that left much of the region on edge. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry plans to urge a freeze on acts that aggravate territorial rows during a regional meeting in Myanmar this weekend.
Moves to enhance military ties between Vietnam and the United States are likely to rile China, which is annoyed at what it sees as Washington's emboldening of other territorial claimants as part of its "pivot" back to Asia.
McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said the stream of visits by senators to the country were not related to China's maritime actions.
"Members of Congress see this as progress made on human rights ... the reason why (easing the embargo) is step by step is because we still believe the human rights issue is step by step," he said. "If it were based simply on the situation with China then I think you would see an argument for total lifting."
McCain said he anticipated joint exercises, a strengthening of Vietnam's coast guard and naval capabilities, including search and rescue missions, plus Vietnamese officers being invited to attend U.S. military academies.
Whitehouse said any easing of the embargo would likely come in phases, but indicated it could progress fast.
"It's not necessarily also going to be an absolute lifting but probably in stages, which allows early stages to happen more rapidly."
(Editing by Larry King)