US, Vietnam say they hope to deepen ties as Blinken visits Hanoi
In his first visit to the southeast Asian country as the top U.S. diplomat, Blinken met with top officials including Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh.
HANOI - Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday expressed a desire to deepen their ties as Washington seeks to solidify alliances to counter an increasingly assertive China.
In his first visit to the southeast Asian country as the top U.S. diplomat, Blinken met with top officials including Vietnamese General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. The main topic was the possibility to upgrade bilateral ties.
"For President Biden, for Washington, this is one of the most dynamic and one of the most important relationships we’ve had," Blinken said at a news conference capping a day of engagements in Hanoi. "It’s had a remarkable trajectory over the last couple of decades. Our conviction is that it can and will grow even stronger."
It remained unclear when an upgrade of formal ties could be agreed, but Blinken expressed hope it could happen "in the weeks and months ahead."
Before his meeting with Blinken, Chinh said both sides were looking to elevate ties "to a new height," following a phone call last month between President Joe Biden and the head of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, a conversation he said yielded "great success."
The diplomatic anniversary and the Biden-Trong call could lead to a meeting between the two in July or other high-level meetings, analysts say, although it is unclear what exactly the upgraded ties would entail.
Blinken told reporters security was among the key components of the two countries' relations and noted this was growing, with Washington finalizing the shipment of a third naval cutter to support Vietnam's coastguard.
Washington and U.S. defense firms have openly said they want to bolster their military supplies to Vietnam - so far largely limited to coastguard ships and training aircraft - as the country seeks to diversify away from Russia, which is currently its main supplier.
But military deals with the U.S. face many potential hurdles, as Washington's lawmakers might block arms sales over human rights issues. U.S. weapons are also expensive, risk triggering Chinese reactions, and may not easily be integrated with Vietnam's legacy weapons, analysts said.
Blinken's visit was part of a wider U.S. strategy in southeast Asia to build a coalition to counter China and deter any potential action by Beijing against Taiwan. Many countries in the region are reluctant to antagonize their giant neighbor, which is not just a military power but also a key trading partner and source of investment.
For the U.S., Vietnam is a crucial southeast Asian trading partner that Washington wants to bolster ties with. But for Hanoi, it has been a difficult balancing act, between cooperating with Washington without upsetting Beijing, even though Vietnam has been alarmed by China's increasing claims in the South China Sea.
The diplomatic calculus is further complicated by increasingly close relations between Beijing and Moscow, which last year declared a "no limits" partnership shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine – although in Vietnamese waters the two powers have opposing interests as Russian firms extract gas in blocks claimed by China.
Some analysts expressed doubts about the potential upgrade.
"For one thing, there is no need, from Vietnam's perspective, to unnecessarily antagonize China ... Another is that Hanoi wants to avoid appearing openly part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy designed to counter China," Rand Corporation Senior Defence Analyst Derek Grossman said.
Blinken also broke ground on a new U.S. embassy compound in Hanoi after meeting the prime minister, a $1.2 billion project years in the making that he said represents "a significant step" towards strengthening ties.
Blinken said progress on human rights was "essential" and a central focus of the relationship with Vietnam. Rights groups have regularly raised concerns over the communist country's treatment of dissidents.
Earlier this week, a Hanoi court sentenced a prominent Vietnamese political activist to six years in prison for conducting anti-state activities, his lawyer said.
After his meetings in Vietnam, including with Trong, Blinken will travel on Sunday to Japan to attend a meeting of foreign ministers of the Group of Seven wealthy nations.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Francesco Guarascio in Hanoi; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and David Holmes)
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