US Vice-President Keeps Focus on China, Covid in Vietnam Talks

Harris has used her Asia trip that began in Singapore to criticize Beijing’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea.
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US Vice-President Keeps Focus on China, Covid in Vietnam Talks U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris (L) delivers remarks during the official launch of the CDC Southeast Asia Regional Office in Hanoi, Aug. 25, 2021.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in talks with Vietnam’s leaders Wednesday called for shared efforts to counter “bullying” by China in the South China Sea, keeping a focus on regional security on a visit in which she unveiled new American efforts to help Hanoi fight the coronavirus.

Harris has used her Asia trip that began in Singapore to criticize Beijing’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea and its refusal to respect an international judgement that rejected sweeping Chinese clams over the critical waterway.

“We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims,” Harris said, referring to the international treaty that sets nations’ rights and responsibilities in the world’s oceans.

The U.S. vice president’s remarks at the start of her meeting in Hanoi with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc drew condemnation from Chinese state media, which accused Harris of trying to create a "chasm" between China and some of its southeastern neighbors.

"Although U.S. officials have vowed to not force any country to choose sides between Washington and Beijing, they have done exactly the opposite," according to a named commentary in the English-language China Daily newspaper.

"In particular, they have instigated some ASEAN member states to confront China over the South China Sea issue," wrote commentator Jia Chunyang.

Jia said the real purpose of U.S. officials' visits to the region was "to drive a wedge between China and some ASEAN members using the South China Sea issue as a pretext."

The two-day visit 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.

Both Biden administration officials in their Hanoi visits have worked to bolster ties with former foe Vietnam, helping the country of 98 million people fight the coronavirus pandemic, while courting strategic partners in China’s backyard.

Harris announced in Vietnam that the U.S. will donate another one million doses of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine — following an earlier donation of five million doses to the Southeast Asian country. She also launched the new Southeast Asia regional office of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Hanoi.

Civil society meeting

Amid verbal sparring Tuesday between Harris and Chinese officials, Vietnam issued a statement stressing that "Vietnam does not align itself with one country against another,” underscoring the delicacy of courting countries who want good economic ties with their giant neighbor even if they are wary of Beijing.

"The vice president is framing her message in the same way that Secretary Austin did last month, as a positive agenda based on how the U.S. can work with partner nations in the region to deliver public goods, particularly in confronting Covid, supply chain issues, and security,” said analyst Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“China is the subtext of some of that, but the administration understands that the region doesn’t want to hear U.S. officials come to town and only talk about China, and that doing so could be counterproductive,” he added.

On Thursday, Harris wraps up her Vietnam visit with a meeting with civil society group members.

Family members of some of the estimated 300 political prisoners in Vietnam, and large groups of overseas Vietnamese activists, civil society and religious groups have pressed the vice-president to raise the issue of human rights – an area where Hanoi and Beijing have more in common with each other than with Washington.

Both China and Vietnam are one-party Communist states that have allowed significant economic freedoms while keeping a tight grip on politics. Vietnam scores modestly higher in many international rankings of political and civil liberties, as well as press freedom, than China.

But in a sign that Harris will face a tough audience for her appeals on rights, a court in Vietnam’s central province of Phu Yen sentenced a member of a Vietnamese exiled political group to 10 years in prison on charges of subversion, the second such case in two weeks.

 Ngo Cong Tru, 33, was arrested in February for using Facebook to contact and join the Provisional Government of Vietnam, a group the court said aims to eliminate the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party and overthrow the government.

Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese and Mandarin Services. Translated by Viet Ha and Luisetta Mudie. Written in English by Paul Eckert.


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