“It’s not about containing China,” Biden said at a news conference in Vietnam’s capital after attending the Group of 20 summit in India. “It’s about having a stable base.”
The American president came to Hanoi as Vietnam was elevating the United States to its highest diplomatic status, comprehensive strategic partner. That is evidence of how far the relationship has evolved from what Biden referred to as the “bitter past” of the Vietnam War.
The expanded partnership reflects a broader effort across Asia to counter China’s influence. Biden has said Vietnam wants to flex a degree of independence, and US companies are seeking an alternative to imports from Chinese factories. He is pursuing possible allies while also trying to soothe tensions with China.
“I think we think too much in … cold war terms,” Biden said at his news conference. “It’s not about that. It’s about generating economic growth and stability in all parts of the world. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
He added: “We have an opportunity to strengthen alliances around the world to maintain stability. That’s what this trip is all about.”
Biden opened his news conference by saying he had “traveled around the world in five days,” from Washington to New Delhi and now Hanoi, showcasing efforts by his administration to forge alliances. The president will stop in Alaska on the way home Monday to commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
In response to one question, Biden told reporters he had met with Chinese Premier Li Qiang while in India. The contact is the highest-level interaction between US and Chinese officials since Biden and China’s president, Xi Jinping, held talks at last year’s G20 in Indonesia. Xi skipped the India talks and sent Li in his place.
“We talked about stability. … It wasn’t confrontational at all,” Biden said.
The exchange, between G20 sessions Saturday, was brief, according to a senior Biden administration official. It was not clear who approached whom, but Biden was interested in seeing Li and underscoring his desire to stabilize the up-and-down relationship between the two countries, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Biden went into meetings with Vietnam’s leaders after his arrival in the country. He welcomed the new partnership and said he hoped for progress on climate, the economy and other issues during his 24-hour stop in Hanoi.
“We can trace a 50-year arc of progress between our nations from conflict to normalization to this new elevated status,” Biden said with Nguyễn Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, at party headquarters.
Biden has described himself as being part of the “Vietnam generation” although he did not serve in a war. He was given five draft deferments and was exempted from military service because he had asthma as a teenager.
Biden called Vietnam “a friend, a reliable partner and a responsible member of the international community.” He noted that veterans such as John Kerry, his climate czar, and the late John McCain, a Vietnam POW and Republican senator from Arizona, found ways to build a relationship with Vietnam after the war.
“Both men saw so clearly, as I and so many others did, how much we had to gain by working together to overcome a bitter past,” he said.
Trong pledged that his country will work hard to implement the agreement. “Only then can we say it is a success,” he pledged.
Biden described the US and Vietnam as “critical partners at what I would argue is a very critical time.” Neither leader specifically discussed how China’s economic and geopolitical rise had contributed to their countries’ expanded partnership, yet it was hard to explain the mutual embrace without Beijing’s growing influence.
Vietnam previously bestowed the same level of relations on China and Russia. Elevating the US suggests that Vietnam wants to hedge its friendships as US and European companies look for alternatives to Chinese factories.
With China’s economic slowdown and Xi’s consolidation of political power, Biden sees an opportunity to bring more nations, including Vietnam and Cambodia, into America’s orbit.
Biden was welcomed upon his arrival in Vietnam with a pomp-filled ceremony outside the mustard-colored Presidential Palace. Schoolchildren lined the steps and waved American and Vietnam flags. Biden watched from an elevated review stand as high-stepping members of the military marched past.
Biden and Trong both expressed happiness over seeing each other again after last meeting some eight years ago in Washington. Biden was vice president at that time.
Trong had some flattering words for Biden, who is running for reelection next year and faces persistent questions at home about his age.
“You have nary aged a day, and I would say you look even better than before,” Trong said. “I would say every feature of you, Mr President, is complimenting your image.” Biden chuckled at that.
But the packed schedule and jet lag appeared to take a toll on the 80-year-old president, who wrapped up his news conference saying “I’m going to go to bed.”
Jon Finer, Biden’s principal deputy national security adviser, addressed reports that Vietnam was pursuing a deal to buy weapons from Russia, even as Hanoi is seeking stronger relations with the US Finer acknowledged Vietnam’s lengthy military relationship with Russia. He said the US continues to work with Vietnam and other countries that have similar ties to Russia to try to limit their interactions with Moscow, which Washington accuses of committing war crimes and violating international law with its aggression in Ukraine.
US trade with Vietnam has already accelerated but there are limits to how much further it can grow without improvements to the country’s infrastructure, its workers’ skills and its governance. Nor has increased trade automatically put the Vietnamese economy on an upward trajectory.
US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said that the CEOs she talks with rank Vietnam highly as a place to diversify supply chains that, before the coronavirus pandemic, had been overly dependent on China.
American imports of Vietnamese goods have nearly doubled since 2019 to $127 billion annually, according to the US Census Bureau. But it is unlikely that Vietnam, with its population of 100 million, can match the scale of Chinese manufacturing. In 2022, China, with 1.4 billion people, exported four times as many goods to the US as did Vietnam.