HANOI – President Joe Biden sought to downplay friction with China, insisting he is not trying to limit the country’s rise even as he spent a weekend in Asia to strengthen ties with other countries seen as a stronghold against Chinese economic and military influence.
“I don’t want to contain China,” Biden said at a news conference on Sunday, hours after arriving here in Vietnam’s capital for meetings with the country’s leaders. “I just want to make sure that we have a relationship with China that is on the rise, and that everyone knows what it’s all about.”
“We have no intention of hurting China – sincerely,” he added. “We are all better off if China does well.”
Biden delivered his remarks in a part of the world that Beijing itself might see as a provocation. Vietnam shares a border with China and the country’s leaders are angry about Beijing’s incursions into the country’s territorial waters. Wary of China’s actions, Vietnam recalibrated its diplomatic ties and on Sunday elevated the US to the highest level in its system, on par with China.
“Why on earth would President Biden go to Vietnam other than it’s about China?” said Matthew Pottinger, former White House deputy national security adviser under Donald Trump.
Biden’s high-profile trip to Vietnam follows his attendance at the G20 summit in India, where he held private talks with his counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India has also clashed with China in border disputes that have fueled tensions between the two nuclear-armed states.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has chosen to skip the summit of the world’s rich countries, the first he has missed in his decade in power. Seizing an opening, Biden used the summit to announce ambitious rail and shipping projects that could potentially rival the kind of infrastructure investments China has made in several countries it has brought into its orbit.
Biden’s route, which stops in two countries bordering China, has made Beijing nervous. Mao Ning of China’s Foreign Ministry said the US should “abandon the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game mentality.”
When Biden was asked directly about that comment, he said at the news conference: “I think we think too much in terms of the Cold War. That’s not the point. It is about generating economic growth and stability in all parts of the world. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
While managing the rivalry with China, Biden has framed his efforts to expand partnerships with Asian countries as an effort to help them prosper and raise living standards.
“It has nothing to do with hurting China or helping China,” Biden said. “It has to do with everything from climate change to ensuring that these countries can succeed and grow economically.”
Biden’s two-day stop in Vietnam is an example of the transience of global alliances. Not so long ago, in the course of history, a presidential visit to Hanoi would have been unthinkable. The fall of Saigon in 1975 ended a war that a succession of American presidents waged in the mistaken belief that Ho Chi Minh’s takeover of the country would topple a crucial domino and thereby spread communism throughout the region.
Half a century later, America’s 46th president sat at a long table at the Communist Party headquarters in Hanoi, under the gaze of the statue of Ho Chi Minh.
“Vietnam and the United States are critical partners at what I think is a very critical time,” Biden said in his opening statement.
Secretary General Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s comments showed that he was following the US presidential race.
One of Biden’s political vulnerabilities is his age. At 80, he is the oldest president in US history, and polls show many voters are not convinced he will serve another four years in office. John Bolton, a former national security adviser under Trump, said in an interview with NBC News that when Biden meets world leaders, “honestly, they probably want to look him in the eye and see if he’s going to make it for another five years.” years.”
Trong was more charitable. In his opening statement, he told Biden: “You haven’t aged a day and I’d say you look even better than before.”
“Every characteristic of you, Mr. President, is very complementary to your image,” he added.
Biden, who likes to joke about his age, then laughed.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com