The top admiral in charge of U.S. military operations in Asia says Washington should drop its remaining restrictions on weapons sales to Vietnam in order to better defend against China’s military buildup in the South China Sea.
Navy Adm. Harry Harris Jr., the head of U.S. Pacific Command, told lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that they’d have to believe the world was flat to think Beijing is not trying to militarily dominate the region.
“I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia — simple as that,” he said in remarks likely to further inflame tensions that have risen between Washington and Beijing during recent days.
The two powers have traded rhetorical barbs since last week when reports emerged that Beijing had deployed anti-aircraft missiles on the Paracels Islands chain. The chain has been under Chinese control for decades but is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
On Monday, the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington think-tank, reported that China has also built new radar facilities in the Spratly Islands, another disputed chain further south than the Paracels in the South China Sea.
Some analysts have argued that Beijing is engaged in a yearslong strategy known as “salami-slicing” — effectively conducting a steady stream of small military actions that when compiled over time will amount to a major reorganization of the military power structure in the region.
During his testimony on Tuesday, Adm. Harris confirmed the new CSIS report about Chinese radar facilities. But he also asserted that the overall situation presents a “strategic opportunity” for the U.S. to beef up its alliances with nations on China’s periphery, including Vietnam, whose leaders have increasingly called on Washington to take a more aggressive posture.
The Obama administration has pushed for warmer relations with Hanoi during recent years. In 2014, the administration announced the partial lifting of the U.S. ban on weapons sales to Vietnam. The move was historic in that it came some 40 years after the end of the Vietnam war.
However, some restrictions were left in place. Administration officials have said only the sale of lethal maritime security and surveillance capabilities would be allowed and, to date, no weapons sales to Vietnam have been reported.
Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam veteran, who has long pushed for reconciliation between Washington and Hanoi despite the communist government in power in there, brought the weapons issue up during Tuesday’s hearing.
“Do you think it’s important for us to lift restrictions on the sale of weapons to Vietnam?” the Arizona Republican and Armed Services Committee chairman asked.
“Yes, senator, I believe that we should improve our relationship with Vietnam,” Adm. Harris responded. “I think it’s a great strategic opportunity for us, and I think the Vietnamese people would welcome the opportunity to work closer with us as their security partner of choice.”