US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin yesterday sought to nudge forward security ties with Vietnam, which have slowly deepened as the two countries watch China’s activities in the South China Sea with growing alarm.
Despite closer military relations, more than four decades after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, US President Joe Biden’s administration has said that there are limits to the relationship until Hanoi makes progress on human rights.
Vietnam has emerged as the most vocal opponent of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and has received US military hardware, including coast guard cutters.
Before a meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart in Hanoi, Austin said that the US did not ask Vietnam to choose between countries.
“One of our central goals is ensuring that our allies and partners have the freedom and the space to chart their own futures,” Austin said.
He did not mention China, but there is a perception in Asia that China is making countries chose between it and the US, as tensions rise between the two powers.
On Wednesday, a US Navy warship carried out a transit through the Taiwan Strait. While such operations are routine, they usually anger Beijing.
“[Vietnam] wants to know that the US is going to remain engaged militarily, it’s going to continue its presence in the South China Sea,” said Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding for Harvard and Texas Tech University to create a database that would help Vietnamese search for those missing from the Vietnam War.
On Sunday, the US shipped 3 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vietnam, raising the amount given by the US via the global COVAX vaccine scheme to 5 million doses.
There is a limit as to how fast and how far the Vietnamese are comfortable with deepening ties, Poling said.
Experts say there are lingering concerns in Vietnam about former US president Donald Trump withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact in 2017.
There are also limits to how far the US is willing to deepen ties before Vietnam improves its human rights record.
In recent decades, Vietnam has undergone sweeping economic reforms and social change, but the Vietnamese Communist Party retains a tight grip over media and tolerates little dissent.
This month, Marc Knapper, who is Biden’s nominee to be the next US ambassador to Vietnam, vowed to boost security ties, but said that they could only reach their potential if Hanoi made significant progress on human rights.
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