US Vice-President Harris in Vietnam for Covid-19 Cooperation and Security Talks

Diplomatic sparring between the U.S. and China began before Kamala Harris landed in the Vietnamese capital.
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US Vice-President Harris in Vietnam for Covid-19 Cooperation and Security Talks U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (R) is received by senior Vietnamese offcials, as she arrives in Hanoi, Vietnam, Aug. 24, 2021.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris flew into Vietnam on Tuesday for a two-day visit aimed at strengthening a bilateral security partnership and helping Hanoi fight the coronavirus pandemic, as Washington tries to challenge what she called  Chinese coercion and intimidation in the region.

In diplomatic sparring that began before her plane landed in the Vietnamese capital late Tuesday night, Harris criticized Beijing’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea and its refusal to respect an international judgement rejecting sweeping clams over the critical waterway.

“We know that Beijing continues to coerce, to intimidate and to make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea,” she said in a speech earlier Tuesday in Singapore.

"These unlawful claims have been rejected by the 2016 arbitral tribunal decision, and Beijing's actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations," she said, referring to the panel’s rejection of China's claims in The Hague, Netherlands.

China—which rejected the ruling against its claims over waters which Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam also claim—quickly shot back at Harris.

The "order" sought by the United States was one in which it could "willfully slander, oppress, coerce and bully other countries and not have to pay any price,” said China's foreign ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, at a news conference in Beijing.

No alliance sought

After the sharp Sino-U.S. exchange, Vietnam issued a statement stressing that Hanoi did not want to choose sides.

"Prime Minister (Pham Minh Chinh) affirmed that Vietnam adheres to an independent, self-reliant, multilateral, and diverse foreign policy and is a responsible member of the international community," the Vietnamese government said in a statement following Chinh’s unannounced meeting with Chinese Ambassador Xiong Bo.

"Vietnam does not align itself with one country against another," it said, calling for solving South China Sea disputes according to international law.

Ambassador Xiong’s meeting with Chinh also unveiled a Chinese donation of 2 million COVID-19 vaccines to Vietnam, playing its hand in the vaccine diplomacy that is a key part of Harris’s two-day stop in Hanoi that comes as the country struggles to contain the deadly third wave of the pandemic.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Xiong as saying Beijing wants to “help Vietnam both control the disease and advance socio-economic development, as well as to ensure the bilateral trade and the stability of the industrial and supply chains between the two countries.”

A People's Liberation Army transport plane carrying a batch of China's Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine landed Monday at Hanoi’s Noi Bai International Airport on Monday, Xinhua said.

The visit by Harris, the first U.S. Vice President to travel to Vietnam since the unification of the country under the Communist North in 1975, follows last month’s call on Hanoi by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Austin announced plans to donate 77 ultra-low temperature freezers to help Vietnam store and distribute vaccines, and Harris is scheduled to help open regional office for Southeast Asia of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to tackle infectious diseases.

There “is a vaccine competition between the U.S. and China in Southeast Asia, but not Vietnam,” said Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at Australia’s University of New South Wales and the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra. He noted that Washington has been Vietnam’s largest donor of vaccines, sending 5 million doses of Moderna and striking commercial agreements with other drug firms.

“It is possible the Biden Administration will agree to transfer IP so Vietnam can produce vaccines,” he said.

“It looks like China took a quick lead but is faltering as time goes by. U.S. vaccines are more reliable and questions about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines are being raised,” added Thayer.

Political prisoner appeal

Vietnam is battling a large COVID-19 outbreak in Ho Chi Minh City, with under two percent of its 98 million people fully vaccinated, the lowest percentage in Southeast Asia, and more than 9,000 deaths.

On Monday Vietnam’s largest city, formerly called Saigon, entered a strict lockdown, with thousands of troops and as many as 35,000 army reservists carrying AK-47 rifles deployed to restrict people’s movements

In the run up to Harris’s seven-day trip to Singapore and Vietnam, Vietnamese political prisoners’ families, activists and U.S. lawmakers all pressed the vice president to raise human rights with Hanoi’s one-party Communist government.

"During the pandemic, the Vietnamese government detained over 50 bloggers, journalists, and human rights defenders” that were put at risk by "placing them in unhygienic, confined places," said a letter by 60 Vietnamese-American pro-democracy, religious, media, and community organizations.

“My family, like others, hopes that the U.S. vice president will urge the Vietnamese government to release unconditionally the prisoners of conscience before the COVID-19 outbreak spreads into the prisons,” said Do Thi Thu, wife of detained land activist Trinh Ba Phuong.

“My wish is that Thuy who is now advanced in age and in poor health, be released,” said Pham Thi Lan, wife of Nguyen Tuong Thuy, a former blogger for RFA’s Vietnamese service who is serving an 11-year prison term for writing articles criticizing Vietnam’s government.

“If not, let him go to the USA to get health treatment under a humanitarian program, for example,” she told RFA.

According to the California-based Vietnam Human Rights Network, Vietnam is currently detaining around 300 political prisoners.

Reported and translated by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.


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