US Looks to Boost Ties in Vietnam as China Reportedly Stalls Blinken Visit

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China has reportedly refused to reschedule a visit from the US secretary of state, as Antony Blinken kicked off a trip to Vietnam, a crucial South-east Asian trade partner that Washington is looking to bolster ties with as it works to balance Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the region and beyond.

In his first visit to the country as the top US diplomat, Blinken will meet with top Vietnamese officials, including Vietnam’s general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, and formally break ground on Saturday on a new US embassy compound in Hanoi. On Sunday he travels to Japan for a meeting of the Group of Seven wealthy nations.

The visit comes as China refused to let Blinken visit Beijing over concerns that the FBI will release the results of an investigation into the suspected Chinese spy balloon downed in February, the Financial Times reported on Saturday, citing sources.

China told the US it was not prepared to reschedule a trip that Blinken cancelled in February while it remained unclear what the Biden administration would do with the report, the newspaper said, citing four people familiar with the negotiations.

On Saturday Blinken emphasised the importance of human rights in a meeting with the Vietnamese prime minister, Pham Minh Chinh, a US State Department spokesperson said.

Rights groups have regularly raised concerns over Vietnam’s treatment of dissidents.

The US faces challenges in South-east Asia in building a coalition to counter China and deter any potential action by Beijing against Taiwan. Many countries in the region are reluctant to antagonise their giant neighbour, which is not just a military power but also a key trading partner and source of investment.

For Hanoi, being open to more cooperation with Washington without upsetting Beijing has been a difficult balancing act, even though Vietnam has been alarmed by China’s growing military claims in the South China Sea. The diplomatic calculus is further complicated by the increasingly close relationship between Beijing and Moscow.

Analysts say Washington will be hoping for progress towards boosting relations with Vietnam to a “strategic” partnership from one that for the past decade has been called “comprehensive”. Officials have not said what this closer relationship might entail but South-east Asia expert Murray Hiebert, who visited Vietnam in February and spoke with senior government officials, said it could include increased military cooperation and US weapons supplies.

With the Vietnam war era an increasingly distant memory, Washington now considers Hanoi, in the words of the top US diplomat for east Asia, Daniel Kritenbrink, “one of America’s most important partners in the region”.

Last month saw a call between the US president, Joe Biden, and Nguyen Phu Trong, who heads Vietnam’s ruling Communist party, which together with Blinken’s visit could lead to a meeting between the two in July, the 10th anniversary of the existing formal bilateral partnership, analysts say.

But while the United States will probably to push for stronger ties with Vietnam, Hanoi may not share the enthusiasm, said an analyst with Rand Corporation, Derek Grossman.

“For one thing, there is no need, from Vietnam’s perspective, to unnecessarily antagonise China … Another is that Hanoi wants to avoid appearing openly part of the US Indo-Pacific strategy designed to counter China,” he said.

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.

Source : TheGuardian