Hanoi, Vietnam—President Joe Biden arrives in Vietnam on Sunday on a mission to bolster US influence, but the heavy emphasis on countering rival China will likely confine human rights concerns to the margins.
Biden will become the latest in an unbroken line of US presidents since Bill Clinton in 2000 to visit the Southeast Asian former foe.
The trip also includes a poignant visit by Biden to the memorial to his friend John McCain, the former US senator shot down and held captive during the Vietnam War who in later years helped rebuild ties between the two countries.
The underlying goal will be much the same as during Biden’s time at the G20 summit in New Delhi this week—to shore up support against China’s growing influence.
“For decades, the US and Vietnam have worked to overcome a painful shared legacy of the Vietnam War,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told a briefing this week.
“This visit is a remarkable step in the strengthening of our diplomatic ties, and it reflects the leading role that Vietnam will play in our growing network of partnerships in the Indo-Pacific as we look to the future,” he said, using another term for the Asia-Pacific region.
On Sunday in Hanoi, the 80-year-old US president will meet the leader of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, the White House said.
There will be a welcome ceremony, speeches by the two leaders and a press conference by the US president —who on Tuesday awarded the top US military honor to a helicopter pilot who rescued four soldiers during the Vietnam War. AFP
Biden will meet President Vo Van Thuong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh on Monday.
On the cards is an upgrade in the relationship between the two countries, less than 50 years after the end of a conflict that left millions of Vietnamese and 58,000 US service members dead.
They are expected to sign off on a “comprehensive strategic partnership”, Hanoi’s highest level of diplomatic ties.
Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that for Vietnam, a partner country’s place in the hierarchy of diplomatic relations was important.
Currently Vietnam only has ties at the same level with Russia, India, South Korea and China.
And it is China that Biden has in his sights on the trip, as Beijing keeps up intense efforts to expand its influence in Asia.
China, which fought a war with Vietnam between 1974 and 1988, hasn’t been slacking either. This week it sent a high-level delegation to Vietnam to “reinforce solidarity and cooperation”, according to Chinese state media.
However, Vietnam won’t be keen to play a role in balancing Washington and Beijing, said Nguyen Quoc Cuong, the Vietnamese ambassador to the United States from 2011 to 2014.
“Vietnam has a very clear policy of befriending all. Vietnam has always said we don’t take sides, not choosing the US against China. The US is fully aware of this”, said Cuong.
But Biden is betting that Vietnam won’t mind being closer to Washington at a time when China’s sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea have fueled tensions.
The Democrat, seeking re-election in 2024, is also thinking about the economy at home. He has called for global supply chains that are less dependent on China, and Vietnam could be a key player in that.
In Vietnam, Biden will be juggling strategic interests with the defense of human rights — a familiar theme from his dealings with allies like Saudi Arabia and India.
His trip comes days after a US government commission on religious freedom harshly criticized Vietnam for “egregious, ongoing, and systematic violations”.
Separately, the State Department has highlighted “significant human rights issues” in the Communist state including illegal or arbitrary executions, torture and the holding of political prisoners.
“We also always raise issues related to freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and other basic human rights”, Sullivan said.
“This trip will be no exception to that.”
Vietnamese activists have few illusions.
“I do not expect any serious push (for change) from the US”, said Le Cong Dinh, a former human rights lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City who was imprisoned for subversion.
“Human rights protection is no longer a top priority.” AFP