SINGAPORE — The leadership of the Senate Armed Services Committee plans to introduce legislation next week to ease a decades long ban on selling weaponry to Vietnam, a decision that the committee's chairman said was directly linked to China's growing aggression in the Pacific.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also called for the Pentagon to keep China away from this year's Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise in response to a series of reclamation projects that has ignited controversy in the South China Sea.
Speaking Saturday at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogues in Singapore, McCain referred to China's actions as "a blatant violation of international law" and warned the nation is making a "serious mistake" that is driving other nations in the region toward alignment with the United States.
"Their actions have united the countries in the region in a way that was unheard of a short time ago," McCain told reporters, echoing comments made earlier in the week by US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.
One of those nations moving closer to the US is Vietnam. McCain cited "a strong desire for closer defense and economic cooperation" between the two nations.
"For our part, we'd like to set conditions for a gradual removal of our lethal arms embargo on Vietnam as soon as possible," he said in his opening comments, noting he and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the committee, hoped to introduce legislation next week to begin that process.
It is not clear how McCain's language will differ from an executive decision made last October that paved the way for sales of lethal weapons for maritime security to Vietnam, but the chairman pointedly said this decision was driven by regional concerns.
"We'd like to see them have greater capability, particularly in weapons that are defensive in nature, which would be used in case of a crisis situation between Vietnam and China," McCain said.
Joining McCain on the trip were a group of bipartisan SASC members, including Reed; Sen. Mazie Hirono, Democrat from Hawaii; and Senators Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, both Republicans.
In comments, the senators highlighted the bipartisan nature of the group as a sign that the US remains focused and united on the Pacific.
Along those lines, McCain said he and Reed wrote to Carter asking that China not be allowed to take part in RIMPAC, a major Pacific military exercise that occurs every summer.
He said Carter has not given a decision in response to their request, but noted that concerns about Chinese participation have been "reinforced" by recent media reports that China has put military equipment on some of their reclaimed territory.
The senator called media reports that North Korea now has the ability to launch nuclear weapons via submarine "very disturbing," and pulled no punches when describing North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.
"To say that there is anything but an unstable regime in North Korea would be a misreading of a very temperamental, very unstable young man — a rather rotund young man," McCain said.
Wendell Minnick in Singapore contributed to this report.