Between 2005 and 2014, Vietnam increased its military spending by almost 400 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce-run website However, the country hasn’t considerably stepped up purchases of American-made weapons, even after the United States lifted its lethal weapons ban on Vietnam in 2016, a State Department official told reporters.

“The Vietnamese are very interested in a greater security partnership,” the official said ahead of the Singapore Airshow, which runs from Feb. 6 to 11.

“We are also encouraging them to look beyond the U.S. grant assistance to also diversifying away from some of their typical suppliers — their historical suppliers like the Russians — into buying U.S. equipment that would, one, give them more capability and, two, help strengthen our partnership for the interoperability and the greater interaction with our military.”

Over the past month, several senior U.S. national security officials have visited Vietnam to help reinforce diplomatic and military ties between the two countries. In his January visit, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced that the United States would send an aircraft carrier to the country for a port visit — the first such event since the Vietnam War.

Before attending the air show to meet with U.S. industry and international partners, Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, the State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, also made a stop in Vietnam for the U.S.-Vietnam Political, Security, and Defense Dialogue.

During a phone call with reporters Monday, Kaidanow said the U.S. relationship with Vietnam is improving, and she spoke about the administration’s desire to see more defense contracts between the two nations.

“As they move forward, it’s completely up to them as a sovereign country, how they go about acquiring their defense systems,” she said. “Certainly our hope is that they will consider American companies not just, by the way, in the defense sector but in other sectors as well where our trade issues are important for them to consider.”

Vietnam is interested in U.S. military technology, as evidenced by the transfer of a Hamilton-class cutter from the U.S. Coast Guard in 2016 and a recent sale — partially through U.S. grant funding — of Boeing-Insitu ScanEagle drones for maritime surveillance, the State Department official said.

However, the country is unfamiliar with the Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales programs, two different ways to acquire weapons from either the State or Commerce departments.

“They’re still learning our system, and we’re doing our very best to make sure that they understand what the U.S. system provides and how it works,” he said. “The U.S. system can be a little daunting sometimes, and so getting them familiar with what the options are, what path you can pursue, you know, what you can get from FMS versus what you can get through DCS.”

Vietnam has a long history of buying Russian-made arms, which are seen by the Vietnamese military as less expensive and complex than U.S. weapons. Even so, the country appears to be weaning itself away from buying Russian equipment, said Collin Koh Swee Lean, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies who specializes in naval affairs in Southeast Asia.

By Valerie Insinna - - February 7, 2018