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US, Vietnam to boost ties amid China worries

September 10, 2023

US President Joe Biden's visit to Vietnam is a step to shore up more support against Beijing's assertive moves in the South China Sea and in other areas. But there are areas of disagreement between Hanoi and Washington.

US President Joe Biden at ceremony with Vietnamese leader Nguyen Phut Trong
Biden's visit will be a balancing act between shoring up economic ties and defending human rightsImage: Luong Thai Linh/AP/picture alliance

US President Joe Biden arrived in Vietnamon Sunday, where the two nations are expected to strengthen diplomatic ties amid China's growing influence in the Indo-Pacific.

US, Vietnam 'critical partners' — Biden

Biden opened the visit by saying the two countries had a chance to shape the Indo-Pacific for decades to come.

He said Vietnam and the US were "critical partners at what I would argue is a very critical time."

Biden said that the two countries had come far from what he referred to as the "bitter past" of the Vietnam War.

"We can trace a 50-year arc of progress between our nations from conflict to normalization to this new elevated status," Biden said.

He called Vietnam "a friend, a reliable partner and a responsible member of the international community."

US delegation during meeting with Vietnamese leadership in Hanoi
Biden met with Nguyen Phu Trong, the leader of Vietnam's ruling Communist PartyImage: Evelyn Hockstein/REUTERS

Both sides seek to expand trade ties

Both Vietnam and the US are important export hubs and share a growing trade relationship.

The Southeast Asian country's exports to the US rose 13.6% last year, compared to the year before, led by a growth in shipment of garments, shoes, electronics and furniture.

Executives from companies including Google, Intel, Amkor, Marvell and Boeing are expected to meet Vietnamese tech executives and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Hanoi, in an attempt to highlight the business side of the relationship.

Biden said on Sunday that the US and Vietnam had signed a deal on semiconductor supply chains.

He said that the agreement aimed to "extend capacity in reliable partners."

"A newly-signed memorandum of cooperation on semiconductor supply chains... will formalize this bilateral partnership to expand the capacity of the semiconductor ecosystem in Vietnam, in support of US industry," he said.

The US has moved to restrict China's access to advanced semiconductor chips amid an intensifying tech rivalry between the two major economies.

What else is on the agenda? 

Biden met with Nguyen Phu Trong, the leader of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, on Sunday afternoon, where they signed a "comprehensive strategic partnership." Hanoi has signed off on such top-level diplomatic ties with India, Russia, South Korea and China in the past.

A meeting with President Vo Van Thuong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh is scheduled for the following day.

The US President, arriving straight from the G20 meet in India, aims to continue shoring up support against China's dominance. Vietnam, despite also having similar ties with China, has been growing concerned about its neighbor's aggression in the contested South China Sea.

Ahead of Biden's trip, the New York Times reported that Vietnam was secretly looking to buy Russian arms, in violation of US sanctions. Most of Vietnam's arsenal consists of Russian-made weapons.

On Sunday, Biden's chief deputy national security adviser, Jon Finer addressed the allegations.

He acknowledged Hanoi's historical relationship with Moscow. He said Washington was working with countries with ties to Russia in order to limit their interactions with the US' rival.

The visit represents "a remarkable step in the strengthening of our diplomatic ties," US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had said earlier this week. He added that Vietnam will play a "leading role" in the US partnership in the Indo Pacific.

"For decades, the US and Vietnam have worked to overcome a painful shared legacy of the Vietnam War, working hand in hand to promote reconciliation, with our service members and our veterans lighting the way," he said. 

India booms, China cools: Consequences for the world?

Biden urged to put pressure on Vietnam over prisoners 

The US presidential visit will be a balancing act between shoring up economic ties and defending human rights. Vietnam's government has been known to crush dissent, harass and abuse critics, conduct unfair trials, and extort forced confessions, according to Human Rights Watch.

While Biden is expected to touch the subject of upholding human rights, organizations around the world urged him to emphasize the subject of releasing all political prisoners. 

On Saturday, Nguyen Bac Truyen, a legal expert and religious freedom advocate who was imprisoned in 2018 for subversion, was released. In a Facebook post, he said he had been allowed to travel to Germany with his wife. Vietnam often releases political prisoners before US presidential visits.

Biden has previously, on several occasions, chided China for violating human rights.

Moreover, a US government commission on religious freedom harshly criticized Vietnam last week for "egregious, ongoing, and systematic violations." 

mk, sdi/msh (Reuters, AFP, dpa)

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