Quietly, Vietnam hosts arms gathering attended by U.S. companies

Wed May 11, 2016 10:22am EDT
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By My Pham and Idrees Ali

HANOI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vietnam hosts a defense symposium this week attended by top American arms manufacturers, ahead of a visit by U.S. President Barack Obama and as Washington weighs whether to lift an arms embargo on its former enemy.

Secrecy has surrounded the event staged by the communist country and attended by firms including Boeing (BA.N: Quote) and Lockheed Martin (LMT.N: Quote). It coincides with the biggest arms buildup in the country since the Vietnam War.

There has been no mention in state-controlled media and defense reporters are not covering the forum. Efforts by Reuters to gain permission to attend have been unsuccessful and Vietnam's defense ministry could not be reached for comment.

Vietnam has accelerated efforts to build a military deterrent and is the world's eighth largest weapons importer, as neighbor China intensifies its push to fortify South China Sea islands it has either occupied or built from scratch.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute think-tank, which tracks defense trade over five-year periods, Vietnam's total arms imports during 2011-2015 represented a 699 percent jump from 2006-2010.

The Hanoi symposium comes amid debate within the U.S. administration over whether to respond to Vietnam's longstanding request to remove an arms embargo that is one of the last major vestiges of the Vietnam War era.

Washington eased the embargo in late 2014, but has said any decision to lift it completely would hinge on the extent to which Vietnam has demonstrated progress in improving its human rights record. Its top envoy in that field, Tom Malinowski, was in Hanoi earlier this week.

Vietnam has been in talks with Western and U.S. arms manufacturers for several years now to boost its fleets of fighter jets, helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft, although Russia, its traditional supplier, maintains a dominant position.   Continued...

Soldiers hold rifles while marching during a celebration to mark Reunification Day in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam April 30, 2015. REUTERS/Kham