President Biden cemented a new strategic relationship with Vietnam on Sunday, bringing the two historic rivals closer than they have ever been and putting behind them the ghosts of a shared anxiety over China’s growing ambitions in the region.
During a historic visit by the US President to Hanoi, the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam officially elevated the country’s relations with the United States to the highest level in Hanoi’s diplomatic hierarchy, equivalent to those with Russia and China. Biden said this breakthrough was “the beginning of a greater era of cooperation” half a century after the withdrawal of US forces.
“Today, we can trace a 50-year arc of progress in the relationship between our two countries, from conflict to normalization,” Biden said at a news conference after meeting with Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the country’s Communist Party. Vietnam. “This is a new elevated status that will be a force for prosperity and security in one of the most important regions of the world.”
Although neither he nor Mr. Truong cited China directly in their public statements, it was an important subtext of the move as Mr. Biden works to create a network of partnerships in the region to counter aggressive actions by Beijing. In recent months, he has expanded cooperation with Australia, India and the Philippines and brought the leaders of Japan and South Korea together at Camp David to conclude a trilateral alliance that has eluded Washington in the past.
“The United States is a Pacific country, and we’re not going anywhere,” Biden said on Sunday, a statement that appeared aimed at putting China on notice.
But in response to journalists’ questions, Biden denied any hostile intent, and rejected a new cold war in the Indo-Pacific region. “I don’t want to contain China,” he said. “I just want to make sure that we have a better relationship with China, and that everyone knows what’s going on around it.”
Beijing was not convinced. In the days leading up to Biden’s visit, Mao Ning, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, called on the United States to “abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum game mentality” in its dealings with Asia, insisting that he and Washington “abide by the basic norms of international relations.”
Biden arrived in Hanoi after the weekend in New Delhi to attend the annual G20 summit meeting. Among the most notable absentees was Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is usually keen to attend such gatherings. He was replaced by Premier Li Qiang, the country’s second leader.
Biden revealed during his press conference in Hanoi that he spoke with Mr. Lee on the sidelines of the summit. He added: “We talked about stability.” “It wasn’t confrontational at all.”
Speculation about Mr. Xi’s absence has been intense within the Biden administration. There are four theories as to why he was absent from the meeting: that he is suffering from internal political pressure due to the country’s growing economic problems. He wanted to send a signal to India amid a tense border dispute. He is seen at home as having spent too much time abroad. Or he wants to shift the focus to groupings most vulnerable to Beijing’s tendencies, such as the BRICS club that includes Russia, Brazil and other powers.
Despite Vietnam’s new deal with Biden, China remains its dominant foreign partner, given the long-standing economic ties between the two countries, and Beijing has indicated that it will not cede territory to the United States. And just last week, Mr. Lee met Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh on the sidelines of another international summit meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia.
But Vietnam, one of the few Southeast Asian countries to push back against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, is looking to establish a little more distance from Beijing and give itself a little more space. Biden administration officials do not expect Vietnam to completely abandon its cooperation with China, but they hope to offer more of an alternative over time.
Likewise, administration officials expect Vietnam to remain close to Russia, its historical patron since the days of the Soviet Union, and have expressed no concerns about a New York Times report about Hanoi secretly seeking a new arms deal with Moscow even as it hosted Trump. Biden.
The bulk of the Vietnamese army depends on Russian equipment, so it has no choice but to continue purchasing weapons, equipment and spare parts from Moscow. But it appears that Vietnam is gradually weaning itself from its Russian suppliers. The US government can follow up on Biden’s visit with sales of F-16 warplanes and military radar batteries, which Hanoi wants to buy.
“Vietnam and the United States are important partners in what I would say is a very critical time,” Biden told Mr. Trong during their meeting in the conference room with a bust of Ho Chi Minh overlooking the two delegations. “I’m not saying that to be polite. I’m saying that because I mean it from the bottom of my heart.
Mr Truong, the aging Communist Party leader, has made strengthening ties with the United States a priority over resistance from other party figures, a possible legacy as he heads to the end of his term. The United States and Vietnam established normal diplomatic relations under President Bill Clinton in 1995, and transitioned to comprehensive relations under President Barack Obama in 2013.
Now it will define their relationship with Washington as a “comprehensive strategic relationship,” a relationship it has only with China, Russia, India and South Korea. Standing behind Biden on Sunday was John F. Kerry, the Vietnam War veteran turned protester who, as a senator, helped bring about normalization in the 1990s and, as secretary of state, backed de-normalization nearly two decades later. He now serves as Mr. Biden’s climate envoy.
In treating Mr. Biden to a pompous welcome, with honor guards, marching bands and flag-waving kids, Mr. Trung was elated about their relationship, even flattering the 80-year-old by saying he did. It doesn’t look old.
“You have aged a day, and I would say you look better than before,” Mr. Trung told Mr. Biden. “Every trait of yours, Mr. President, is highly complementary to your image,” Mr. Trong added. Mr. Biden laughed appreciatively.
But the Vietnamese leadership is more complex than just one man and more collective than it is in China or Russia. As a result, Mr. Biden is planning separate visits on Tuesday to several other influential figures: Mr. Chinh, the prime minister; Chief Vo Van Thung; and Phung Dinh Huy, Speaker of Parliament.
Human lefts activists accused the US government of abandoning its stated commitment to promoting democracy and human rights abroad in favor of strengthening US influence in the region. Vietnam remains one of the most authoritarian countries in Southeast Asia, and Mr. Trung’s government has cracked down on dissent and activism in recent years.
“U.S. silence on human rights may be seen as complicity in the Vietnamese government’s ever-increasing crackdown on rights, hurting the longstanding relationship,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, referring to Biden’s visit to Vietnam. term.” Hanoi.
The contrast between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trung was evident in their written comments after they met. While Mr. Trong stressed the importance of “non-interference in each other’s internal affairs” and respect for each other’s political system, Mr. Biden said he had “raised the importance of respecting human rights.”
The president responded bluntly when asked later if he put US strategic interests above human rights.
“I brought this up with everyone I met,” he said.
Sui Li Wei Contributed to reports.
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