HANOI (Reuters) – Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chin and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Saturday they want to ideally deepen their ties in the coming months as Washington seeks to strengthen alliances to counter an increasingly assertive China.
On his first visit to the major Southeast Asian country as the US’s chief diplomat, Blinken began his trip with a meeting with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chin. In brief remarks before their meeting, he said that over the past decade there had been “extraordinary progress” in relations between the two countries.
“Now we hope to be able to take it to a higher level, deepening economic partnerships further,” Blinken said, noting that the two countries celebrate the 10th anniversary of their official partnership this year.
Both sides are looking forward to taking relations “to a new level,” Chinh said, after a phone call last month between President Joe Biden and Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong, a conversation he said resulted in “a huge success.”
Analysts say the diplomatic anniversary and Biden-Trong call could lead to a meeting between the two in July or other high-level meetings.
It remains unclear when an official relations upgrade could be agreed, but Blinken expressed hope that it could happen “in the coming weeks and months.”
Even more mysterious is what the upgrading of relationships might entail.
Security has been a key component of the relationship between the two countries, Blinken told reporters, and noted that this is increasing, as Washington has completed the shipment of a third naval cutter to support the Vietnamese coast guard.
Washington and US defense companies have said publicly that they want to boost their military supplies to Vietnam – hitherto largely limited to Coast Guard ships and trainer aircraft – as the country seeks to diversify away from Russia, which is currently its main supplier.
But military deals with the United States face several potential hurdles, as lawmakers in Washington could block arms sales over human rights issues. Analysts said that US weapons are also very expensive, may trigger Chinese reactions, and may not be easily combined with Vietnam’s old weapons.
Blinken’s visit was part of a broader US strategy in Southeast Asia to build a coalition to counter China and deter potential action by Beijing against Taiwan. Many countries in the region are reluctant to antagonize their giant neighbor, which is not only a military power but also a major trading partner and source of investment.
For the United States, Vietnam is an important trading partner in Southeast Asia with which Washington wants to strengthen relations. For Hanoi, however, it was difficult to balance cooperation with Washington without angering Beijing, even though Vietnam was wary of China’s growing claims in the South China Sea.
The diplomatic calculus is further complicated by increasingly close ties between Beijing and Moscow, which last year announced a “borderless” partnership shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — even though the two powers in Vietnamese waters have opposing interests as Russian companies extract the gas in blocks. Allegedly from China.
Some analysts have expressed doubts about the potential upgrade.
“For one thing, there is no need, from Vietnam’s point of view, to antagonize China unnecessarily… The other is that Hanoi wants to avoid appearing overtly as part of a US Indo-Pacific strategy designed to counter China,” Grossman said.
Blinken also broke ground on the construction of a new US Embassy compound in Hanoi after meeting with the prime minister, a project in the pipeline that he said marked an “important step” toward strengthening ties.
Blinken said human rights progress is “essential” and central to the relationship with Vietnam. Rights groups regularly raised concerns about the communist state’s treatment of dissidents.
Earlier this week, a Hanoi court sentenced a prominent Vietnamese political activist to six years in prison for anti-state activities, his lawyer said.
And after his meetings in Vietnam, including with Truong, Blinken will travel to Japan on Sunday for a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven rich nations.
(Covering by Humeyra Pamuk). Editing by Kim Coghill
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