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
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
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.
[to top of second column]
McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, said the stream of
visits by senators to the country were not related to China's
"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
(Editing by Larry King)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.