US President Joe Biden will arrive in Vietnam on Sunday to bolster his country’s influence, with a focus on fighting China, which could put human rights concerns on the back burner.
The goal for Biden is the same as it was at this weekend’s G20 summit in New Delhi: build support in the face of growing Chinese influence.
“For decades, the United States and Vietnam have worked to overcome the shared legacy of the Vietnam War,” said Jake Sullivan, White House national security adviser.
“This visit is an important step in strengthening our diplomatic relations and reflects the growing role that Vietnam will play in our Indo-Pacific alliance network in the future,” he said, referring to the Asia-Pacific region.
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Biden will meet with ruling Vietnamese Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi on Sunday, the White House said.
On Monday he will meet with President Vo Van Thuong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh.
On the table is an improvement in relations between the two countries, less than 50 years after the end of the conflict that claimed the lives of millions of Vietnamese and 58,000 US soldiers.
The leaders are expected to agree to a “broad strategic alliance,” the highest level of diplomatic ties for Hanoi that the country has only with Russia, India, South Korea and China.
China is exactly what Biden has his sights set on this trip amid Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence in Asia.
China, which fought a war against Vietnam between 1974 and 1988, has also courted Hanoi by sending a high-level delegation this week to “strengthen solidarity and cooperation,” according to China’s official Xinhua agency.
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But Vietnam is not trying to play a role in balancing Washington and Beijing, said Nguyen Quoc Cuong, Hanoi’s former ambassador to Washington from 2011 to 2014.
“Vietnam has a very clear policy of rapprochement with everyone.” Vietnam has always said that we do not take sides and do not choose between the United States and China. “The United States is aware of this,” Cuong said.
But Biden is betting Vietnam could draw closer to Washington amid tensions in the region over Chinese attempts to seize most of the South China Sea.
Biden will need to balance strategic interests with defending human rights, as he has already done with India and Saudi Arabia.
Recently, an official US Commission on Religious Freedom sharply criticized Vietnam for “serious, persistent and systematic violations.”
In addition, the State Department pointed to “significant human rights problems” in the communist country, including illegal or arbitrary executions, torture and detention of political prisoners.
“We always raise issues of freedom of expression, freedom of religion and other basic human rights,” Sullivan said. “This trip will be no exception.”
But Vietnamese activists are under no illusions.
“Protecting human rights is no longer a priority,” said Le Cong Dinh, a former human rights lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City.