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HANOI, Vietnam – Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday, April 15, expressed a desire to deepen and upgrade their ties as Washington seeks to solidify alliances in the region to counter an increasingly assertive China.
In his first visit to the key southeast Asian country as the top US diplomat, Blinken kicked off his trip with a meeting with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh. In brief remarks before their meeting, he said during the past decade there has been “extraordinary progress” in ties between the two countries.
“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 US 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 US face many potential hurdles, as Washington’s lawmakers might block arms sales over human rights issues. US 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 US 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 US, 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 US Indo-Pacific Strategy designed to counter China,” Rand Corporation Senior Defense Analyst Derek Grossman said.
Blinken also broke ground on a new US embassy compound in Hanoi after meeting the prime minister, a 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. – Rappler.com