US Defense Secretary Austin Meets in Hanoi With Vietnamese Officials

Talks focused on security in the South China Sea, where China has intruded on territorial waters claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries in the region.
By Richard Finney
2021-07-29
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US Defense Secretary Austin Meets in Hanoi With Vietnamese Officials US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin inspects a guard of honor during a welcome ceremony in Hanoi, Vietnam, July 29, 2021.
AFP

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Vietnamese Defense Minister Phan Van Giang in Hanoi on Thursday for talks on strengthening security in the South China Sea, where China has encroached on territorial waters and maritime resources claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries in the region.

Austin’s visit to Vietnam was the first to that country by a high-ranking U.S. official since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January.

Following Thursday’s talks, Austin will leave on Friday for talks in the Philippines, where China has sent fishing fleets and coast guard vessels into the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone, ignoring repeated requests to leave.

Chinese vessels have also intruded into Vietnamese territorial waters in the South China Sea, called the East Sea by Vietnam, obstructing Vietnamese oil exploration efforts and building airstrips and other facilities on disputed island groups.

In a Tuesday speech in Singapore, his first stop in the region, Austin repeated the U.S. view that China’s claim to almost all of the South China Sea “has no basis in international law” and encroaches on the sovereignty of other states in the region.

”Unfortunately, Beijing’s unwillingness to resolve disputes peacefully and respect the rule of law isn’t just occurring on the water,” Austin said,  pointing to recent aggressive moves by China against Vietnam, military threats against Taiwan, and genocide and crimes against humanity committed against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Ahead of Thursday’s talks, Austin assured Vietnam that he was not seeking to force Vietnam to “choose between” China and the United States, however, saying only that U.S. allies and partners should have the “freedom and the space to chart their own futures,” the Reuters news service said in a report on Thursday.

COVID assistance

Talks on Thursday also focused on U.S. assistance to Vietnam in containing the spread of COVID-19 amid a new surge in infections in the country. The U.S. has already shipped 5 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vietnam, already in widespread lockdown, to contain the spread of the disease, with 3 million doses sent to Vietnam on Sunday alone, according to news sources.

The U.S. and Vietnam also signed an agreement on Thursday for Harvard and Texas Tech University to create a database helping Vietnam to search for missing dead from the Vietnam War, and discussed moves to remove landmines, clean up areas contaminated by the defoliant Agent Orange, and search for Americans also missing in the war.

Human rights abuses in Vietnam, where authorities retain tight controls on the media and jail peaceful critics of the government, remain a concern for the United States, though, Austin said in a speech in Singapore on Tuesday.

In discussions abroad, the U.S. always leads with its values, Austin said, quoted by Reuters in a report.

“We will discuss those values with our friends and allies everywhere we go, and we don’t make any bones about that,” Austin said.

Meeting with Austin on Thursday, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc said he looks forward to meeting with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris when Harris visits during a possible trip to Vietnam and Singapore sometime in August, Reuters said, quoting an informed source.

RFA has not confirmed the reported Asia visit plans of Harris.

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