President Biden cemented a new strategic relationship with Vietnam on Sunday, bringing two historic enemies closer than ever before and leaving the ghosts of the past behind them amid shared concerns about China’s growing ambitions in the region.
In a landmark visit by the US president to Hanoi, the leadership of Vietnam’s Communist Party formally elevated the country’s ties with the United States to the highest level in Hanoi’s diplomatic hierarchy, on par with the country’s ties with Russia and China. Mr Biden said the breakthrough was “the beginning of an even greater era of cooperation,” half a century after US troops withdrew.
“Today we can trace a 50-year arc of progress in the relationship between our nations, from conflict to normalization,” Biden said at a news conference after meeting with Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the United Nations Communist Party. Vietnam. “This is a new, elevated status that will be a driving force for prosperity and security in one of the most influential regions in the world.”
Although neither he nor Mr. Trong quoted China directly in their public comments, it was an important subtext for the move as Mr. Biden works to build a network of partnerships in the region to counter aggressive action from Beijing. In recent months, he has expanded cooperation with Australia, India and the Philippines and brought together the leaders of Japan and South Korea at Camp David to seal a three-way alliance that Washington has sidelined in the past.
“The United States is a Pacific nation, and we are not going anywhere,” Biden said on Sunday, a statement that appeared intended to put China on notice.
But in response to reporters’ questions, Mr 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 we have a relationship with China that is on the rise, well-organized and everyone knows what it’s all about.”
Beijing was not convinced. In the days leading up to Biden’s visit, Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, called on the United States to “abandon the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game mentality” in their relations with Asia, stressing that Washington “adheres to the basic norms of international relations.”
Mr Biden arrived in Hanoi after a weekend in New Delhi, where he attended the Group of 20’s annual summit. Notably absent was President Xi Jinping of China, who usually makes a point of attending such meetings. In his place was Prime Minister Li Qiang, the country’s second leader.
Mr Biden announced at his news conference in Hanoi that he had spoken to Mr Li on the sidelines of the summit. “We talked about stability,” he said. “It wasn’t confrontational at all.”
There is intense speculation within the Biden administration about Mr Xi’s absence. There are four theories as to why he skipped the meeting: He is exerting domestic political pressure due to the country’s growing economic problems. He wanted to send a message to India amid a tense border dispute. He is seen to have spent too much time abroad at home. Or he wants to shift the focus to groups that are more sensitive to Beijing’s leadership, such as the BRICS country club, which also includes Russia, Brazil and other powers.
Despite Vietnam’s new deal with Mr Biden, China remains its dominant foreign partner given the countries’ longstanding economic ties, and Beijing has signaled it will not cede ground to the United States. Just last week, Mr Li met with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh of Vietnam on the sidelines of a new international summit in Jakarta, Indonesia.
But Vietnam, one of the few Southeast Asian countries opposing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, is trying to distance itself from Beijing and give itself some leeway. Biden administration officials do not expect Vietnam to completely abandon cooperation with China, but hope to offer more alternatives over time.
Similarly, administration officials expect Vietnam to remain close to Russia, its historic patron since the days of the Soviet Union, and expressed no concerns about a DailyExpertNews report on Hanoi secretly seeking a new arms deal with Moscow even when the country hosted the Soviet Union. Biden.
The vast majority of Vietnam’s military is based on Russian equipment, so it has little choice but to continue buying weapons, equipment and parts from Moscow. But it appears that Vietnam is beginning to gradually wean itself off its Russian suppliers. The US government could follow up Biden’s visit with the sale of F-16 fighter jets and military radar batteries coveted by Hanoi.
“Vietnam and the United States are critical partners at what I think is a very critical time,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Trong as they met in a conference room with a bust of Ho Chi Minh above the two delegations. ‘I don’t say that out of politeness. I say it because I mean it from the bottom of my heart.”
Mr. Trong, the aging leader of the Communist Party, has made improving relations with the United States a priority over opposition from other party figures, a possible legacy for him as he enters the twilight of his term. The United States and Vietnam established normal diplomatic relations in 1995 under President Bill Clinton and upgraded them to comprehensive relations under President Barack Obama in 2013.
Now it will define its ties with Washington as a “comprehensive strategic relationship,” which it has only with China, Russia, India and South Korea. Behind Mr. Biden on Sunday was John F. Kerry, the Vietnam War veteran turned protester who helped usher in normalization as a senator in the 1990s and supported the increase as secretary of state nearly two decades later. He now serves as Mr. Biden’s climate envoy.
As he treated Mr. Biden to a pomp-filled welcome, complete with goose-stepping honor guards, marching bands and flag-waving children, Mr. Trong was effusive about their relationship and even flattered the 80-year-old president by saying that he did. don’t look old.
“You haven’t aged a day, and I’d say you look even better than before,” Mr. Trong told Mr. Biden. Mr. Trong added: “Every attribute of you, Mr. President, greatly complements your image.” Mr. Biden smiled appreciatively.
However, Vietnamese leadership is more complicated than one man, and more of a collective than in China or Russia. As a result, Mr. Biden plans to make separate visits on Tuesday to several other influential figures: Mr. Chinh, the prime minister; Chairman Vo Van Thuong; and Vuong Dinh Hue, the head of parliament.
Human rights activists have accused the U.S. government of abandoning its promised commitment to promoting democracy and human rights abroad in favor of strengthening U.S. influence in the region. Vietnam remains one of the most authoritarian countries in Southeast Asia, and Mr. Trong’s government has been particularly cracking down on dissent and activism in recent years.
“The US silence on human rights could be seen as complicity in the Vietnamese government’s deepening crackdown on rights, endangering the long-term relationship,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch , referring to Mr Biden’s visit to Hanoi.
The disparity between Mr Biden and Mr Trong was clearly visible in their comments after their meeting. 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 “stressed the importance of respect for human rights”.
The president reacted tensely when later asked whether he was putting American strategic interests above human rights.
“I’ve brought it up with everyone I’ve met,” he said.
Sui-Lee Wee reporting contributed.