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Vietnam's Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh arrives at the National Convention Center for the last day of the 12th National Congress of Vietnam's Communist Party (VCP), in Hanoi, Vietnam, January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Minh Hoang/Pool

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By Greg Torode

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The recent lifting of the U.S. arms embargo against Vietnam boosted trust between the former enemies, but significant weapons purchases are some way off, a senior Vietnamese military official said on Saturday.

Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh told Reuters possible weapons buys were part of a long-planned strengthening of Vietnamese-U.S. relations across economic, political, cultural and security fronts.

"We are not sure what we can buy from the U.S. or what we want to buy," Vinh said in some of the first public comments from a Vietnamese defence official since U.S. President Barack Obama lifted the embargo in Hanoi last month.

"It is at a very, very first step, I should stress," he said.

"The removal of the embargo is not just significant in terms of trade, but also in terms of improving high-level trust and confidence."

An evolving military relationship between the United States and Vietnam is being closely watched across the region as Hanoi seeks to deter its giant neighbour China over its more asserted stance on claims in the disputed South China Sea.

The United States is eyeing closer military relations with Hanoi as it seeks to expand its so-called strategic pivot back to Asia amid concern over China's rising power in the region.

Vietnam has rapidly increased military spending over the last decade, relying on its Cold War-era patron Moscow for purchases of state-of-the-art submarines, jet fighters and advanced missile systems.

U.S. weapons manufacturers are eager to tap a new market in Vietnam but regional security experts believe Hanoi will move only gradually in easing its dependence on Moscow.

The relatively high cost of U.S. weapons is another factor but regional military sources believe Vietnam is keen to first acquire improved surveillance and communications equipment to help it keep a better watch on China.

This could include maritime patrol aircraft.

Speaking privately, U.S. officials say Vietnam has yet to start detailed discussions with Washington about its specific needs and gaps in its capabilities, a factor which they believe reflects decades of habitual secrecy.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Shangri-la Dialogue security summit in Singapore, Vinh did not detail Vietnam's first planned U.S. procurements but repeatedly stated Vietnam's military improvements were defensive.

Vietnam, like China and Taiwan, claims all the Paracel and Spratlys archipelagos in the South China Sea and Hanoi officials say privately that rising tensions in the South China Sea have complicated otherwise solid relations with Beijing.

(Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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