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China looms large over Biden’s trip to Vietnam

HONG KONG — President Joe Biden’s visit to Vietnam this weekend may be brief, but it has major implications for U.S. efforts to push back against China.

Vietnam, a one-party communist state bordering China, has become one of the United States’ most important partners in Southeast Asia, a region on the front lines of competition between the world’s two largest economies.

Washington and Hanoi normalized relations in 1995, 22 years after the end of US involvement in the Vietnam War, and have been “comprehensive partners” since 2013. During Biden’s visit, the relationship is expected to be upgraded two notches to “comprehensive strategic partner.” ”, the highest level of diplomatic ties in Vietnam, putting the US on the same level as China, Russia, India and South Korea.

The upgrade is a major diplomatic victory for the US, said Alexander Vuving, a professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.

“It sends the message that the US is able to attract many important countries in the region, even Vietnam, which is ruled by the Communist Party and is believed to be close to China,” he said.

In recent years, China has gained influence in Southeast Asia, Vuving said, especially in countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar. The improvement in the US-Vietnam relationship, he said, “to some extent restores the regional balance of power.”

Kurt Campbell, the National Security Council’s coordinator for Indo-Pacific affairs, has described Vietnam, a country of about 100 million people, as a regional swing state.

That’s partly because the US and Vietnam “share a common commitment” to preventing Chinese hegemony in Asia, Vuving said.

Vietnam wants to “benefit from the Chinese market, from trade with China, but at the same time it wants to reduce its vulnerability to China,” he said.

Vietnam is important to the US both economically and strategically.

Last year, the country overtook Britain as the United States’ seventh-largest partner in goods trade, according to the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, the US is Vietnam’s largest export market.

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The US was also Vietnam’s second-largest source of tourists last year after South Korea, the national tourism bureau reported.

Vietnam, Asia’s fastest-growing economy last year, aims to become the next global semiconductor hub, and it has a growing electric car industry. Vietnamese EV maker VinFast is now one of the world’s most valuable car companies after a US trading debut last month that saw its valuation soar past those of the likes of Ford and General Motors.

VinFast ships its first shipment of vehicles to the US (Linh Pham/Bloomberg via Getty Images file)

Vietnam is also becoming an increasingly important destination for U.S. investment, especially as the U.S.-China trade war is causing some U.S. companies to relocate parts of their manufacturing operations.

“Vietnam will become an increasingly important link in the global supply chain,” said Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow in Vietnam studies at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Washington, which lifted a ban on arms sales to Vietnam in 2016, also sees it as a promising market for weapons and military equipment as Hanoi tries to reduce its dependence on Moscow.

Strategically, experts say, the US sees Vietnam as a key partner in its efforts to counter the rise of China, especially its vast claims over the South China Sea, a resource-rich waterway that generates trillions of dollars annually of trade flows.

Matthew Pottinger, who served as deputy national security adviser in the Trump administration, said Biden’s quick trip to Hanoi is undoubtedly intended as a signal to Beijing.

By strengthening ties with Vietnam, the Biden administration is “putting pressure” on China, he said in an interview with NBC News.

South China Sea (Aaron Favila / AP)

South China Sea (Aaron Favila / AP)

“It shows that the government understands what’s going on here,” Pottinger said.

In some ways, the US has been an “ardent lover” when it comes to China, he added, sending a series of senior officials to Beijing in an effort to improve ties.

“The US is also dating, torturing the metaphor of the ‘ardent suitor,’” Pottinger said. “We’re trying to make this other side jealous too.”

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However, Hiep said Biden’s visit to Vietnam is not just about China. The two countries have “tremendous interest” in working together on trade, investment, technology and combating climate change, he said.

“It is true that China has a role to play in all these developments, but it is only part of the picture,” he said. “There are other, more important things in this evolving partnership.”

It is also unlikely that Hanoi and Washington will mention China in connection with their improved relationship, Hiep said, especially as Vietnam wants to maintain a balance in its relations with the two powers.

China has warned the US not to use its relations with individual countries in Asia to target a ‘third party’.

“The US should abandon the zero-sum game and Cold War mentality, uphold basic norms of international relations, refrain from attacking third parties, and avoid undermining regional peace, stability, development and prosperity,” the spokesperson said. Mao of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ning said this on Monday during a regular briefing in Beijing.

Advocacy groups have urged Biden to use his visit to address Vietnam’s deteriorating human rights record and push for the release of more than 150 political prisoners.

Last year, the State Department added Vietnam to its special watch list for religious freedom violations, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said in a report Tuesday that while Vietnam had made some progress in the past decade, a recent crackdown crackdowns on civil society and increasing violations of religious freedom signaled a “marked reversal in that once positive trajectory.”

Human rights appear to have taken a “backseat” amid U.S. competition with adversaries like China and Russia, Hiep said.

“The US now appears to be prioritizing its strategic interests over value considerations,” he said, “so it has continued to pay attention to Vietnam’s human rights record, but appears to be taking a less critical approach .”

Broader regional ties

There was some disappointment in the region that Biden, who arrived in India on Friday for the annual summit of the Group of 20 economies, chose to skip a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders in Indonesia this week after skipping the event in Cambodia last year had attended. Vice President Kamala Harris instead represented the US at the annual summit of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), on what was her third visit to the region.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping was expected to be absent from both events.

The White House denies that the Biden administration has not been sufficiently engaged in the region, noting that last year Biden became the first president to host ASEAN member states in the White House. The US and ASEAN also upgraded their relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership at last year’s Cambodian summit.

ASEAN Summit Indonesia (Achmad Ibrahim / AP)

ASEAN Summit Indonesia (Achmad Ibrahim / AP)

“I would argue that America’s commitment to and relationship with ASEAN and its member states has never been stronger,” Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told reporters on Thursday.

Hiep said U.S. engagement in Southeast Asia has improved in recent years, especially under the Biden administration. He pointed to Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, as well as efforts to strengthen ties with countries like the Philippines, which this year agreed to an expanded U.S. military presence.

Although the US has an edge over China in terms of soft power and popularity in most of Southeast Asia, the region generally views China as the predominant economic power in Asia, according to a comprehensive poll released last month by the Center for Strategic and Political Development. International Studies, a think tank based in Washington.

The report warned that the gap in economic influence is only widening in favor of China, which is the largest trading partner for all ten ASEAN member states and the largest investor for most of them. But growing regional concerns about China’s rhetoric and actions create opportunities for the US to strengthen ties, the report said.

“Washington must advance a positive political, security and economic agenda to meet this moment,” the report said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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