Fifty years after the last U.S. combat troops left South Vietnam, Secretary of State Antony Blinken looked Saturday to strengthen America’s ties with its old foes in Hanoi as it seeks to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
Blinken and Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh pledged to boost relations to new levels as they met just two weeks after the 50th anniversary of the U.S. troop withdrawal that marked the end of America’s direct military involvement in Vietnam.
And it came as Blinken broke ground on a sprawling new $1.2 billion U.S. embassy compound in the Vietnamese capital, a project the Biden administration hopes will demonstrate its commitment to further improving ties less than 30 years after diplomatic relations were restored in 1995.
Despite concerns over Vietnam’s human rights record, Washington sees Hanoi as a key component of its strategy for the region and has sought to leverage Vietnam's traditional rivalry with its much larger neighbor China to expand U.S. influence in the region.
“We think this is an auspicious time to elevate our existing partnership,” Blinken told reporters after meetings with Chinh, Vietnam's foreign minister and Communist Party chief.
"This has been a very comprehensive and effective relationship and going forward we will continue to deepen relations,” Chinh said. “We highly appreciate the role and responsibility of the U.S. towards the Asia Pacific, or, in a larger scheme, the Indo-Pacific.”
He added that Vietnam's communist government is keen to “further elevate our bilateral ties to a new height.”
Along with a number of China's smaller neighbors, Vietnam has maritime and territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. The U.S. has responded by offering diplomatic support and bolstering military cooperation with the Philippines and the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as a renegade province.
Blinken noted that the U.S. is currently finalizing the transfer to Vietnam of a third Coast Guard cutter, which will complement existing maritime security cooperation that has seen Washington give Hanoi 24 patrol boats since 2016 along with other equipment and training.
"All of these elements bolster Vietnamese capacity to contribute to maritime peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.
Just last month, China threatened “serious consequences” after the U.S. Navy sailed a destroyer around the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea for the second day in a row, in a move Beijing claimed was a violation of its sovereignty and security. The Paracels are occupied by China but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.
U.S. officials are reluctant to describe any visit to Asia in terms of China, preferring instead to discuss the importance of improving bilateral ties. But they frequently speak to broader concerns in the region that are clearly directed at China.
“We focused on how our countries can advance a free and open Indo-Pacific; one that is at peace and grounded in respect the rules-based international order," Blinken said.
And five decades after the Nixon administration pulled U.S. combat forces out of Vietnam on March 29, 1973, Blinken said the U.S. is seeking a more strategic orientation with the country.
Blinken's visit comes as the administration grapples with its own record of troop withdrawals and is facing congressional criticism and demands to explain the chaotic U.S. departure from Afghanistan
two years ago.
Some have likened that to the Vietnam experience, especially as it relates to the fate of Afghans who supported the 20-year military mission but were left behind when the Biden administration pulled out of Afghanistan