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US Helping Strengthen Vietnamese Coast Guard

FILE - Image from a Vietnam Coast Guard ship on May 13, 2014 shows a covered gun-machine on the deck during a patrol near China's oil drilling rig in disputed waters in the South China Sea.

A senior U.S. diplomat has confirmed that Washington has transferred five fast patrol vessels to Vietnam as part of a plan to assist the former foe’s maritime forces.

The assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, Puneet Talwar, spoke with VOA this week following a visit to Hanoi, where he attended a dialogue on a broad range of issues.

“We have been doing a lot of cooperation in terms of supporting the development of Vietnam’s Coast Guard," he said. "We are very proud of that work and we hope that it is also appreciated by the Vietnamese counterparts. Yes, we have been providing vessels, and we will continue to do that to help improve Vietnam’s Coast Guard’s capabilities."

The provision of $18 million and five boats was first announced by Secretary of State John Kerry during his 2013 visit to Vietnam.

Analysts say the assistance would strengthen Vietnamese maritime forces at a time when China is expanding its claims over the South China Sea. The two neighbors were at odds for nearly two months last year, after Beijing deployed a controversial oil rig in disputed waters.

According to observers, the tension that plunged the bilateral ties to the lowest point in decades also show the need for Vietnam to upgrade its Coast Guard to deal with similar incidents in the future.

The partial lifting of the United States' lethal arms ban against Vietnam last year led the public to believe that Hanoi would seize the chance to acquire American military equipment to protect its maritime sovereignty.

When asked whether Vietnam mentioned anything about its military equipment purchase plan, Talwar said his delegation’s visit to Vietnam is not about “selling any particular weapons systems or about transactional issues.”

“It was really about the growing depth of the partnership and relationship between Vietnam and the United States," he said. "We covered a wide range of issues, all the way from maritime security, to peacekeeping, to non-proliferation, to humanitarian issues such as the removal of unexploded ordinance and MIA's. Things of that sort, which really show the breadth of our relationship."

The senior official said the U.S. decision to provide maritime defense assistance was taken in a wider context in which “human rights is a very important part.”

Talwar said that during the annual dialogue, Vietnam and the United States also “exchanged views on the situation in the South China Sea and reaffirmed their shared interest in maintaining peace, stability, freedom of navigation and overflight.”

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Vietnamese service.