WASHINGTON — The United States on Thursday partially lifted its longtime ban on the provision of lethal arms to Vietnam, a move that is intended to help Hanoi strengthen its maritime security as it contends with a more assertive China.
The policy shift was announced as Vietnam's foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, met here with Susan Rice, the national security adviser, and Secretary of State John Kerry
The State Department emphasized that the policy change applied only to naval systems and said that the decision reflected improvements in Vietnam's human rights record.
Human rights groups criticized the decision.
"Vietnam has hardly earned this reward," said John Sifton, the Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. "Vietnam's record on political prisoners is bad and getting worse."
As concerns have grown over China's growing military abilities, the United States has gradually moved to strengthen security ties with Vietnam.
The United States has allowed the sale of nonlethal equipment to Vietnam since 2007.
In December, in a visit to Vietnam, Kerry announced that Washington would provide $18 million in such assistance, including five unarmed patrol boats for the Vietnamese coast guard.
But with tensions growing between Hanoi and Beijing over China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, Vietnam has urged that the ban on the sale of lethal arms be rescinded.
State Department officials said such requests would be handled on a case-by-case basis but declined to say what specific systems, such as armed boats or surveillance planes, were under consideration or when they might be provided.