U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin looked to improve military relations with Vietnam during talks Thursday. The two countries are slowly gaining closer ties as they watch China’s activities in the South China Sea with growing concern.
The closer security relations come more than 40 years after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. President Joe Biden's administration, however, has said there are limits to the relationship unless Hanoi makes progress on human rights.
Vietnam has strongly opposed China's claims to territory in the South China Sea. Vietnam has also received U.S. military equipment, including navy ships.
Before a meeting with the Vietnamese defense minister in Hanoi, Austin said the United States is not asking Vietnam to choose between countries, as some countries in the area feel China is doing.
"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.
On Wednesday, a U.S. Navy warship took a trip through the Taiwan Strait. While those kinds of operations are normal, they usually anger Beijing.
Greg Poling is with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He said Vietnam “wants to know that the U.S. is going to remain engaged militarily, it's going to continue its presence in the South China Sea.”
Vietnam and the Philippines are among China’s biggest opponents in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Ignoring protests from neighboring countries, Beijing has built several islands with military equipment and airplane runways. Earlier, Vietnam had accused China of preventing its gas exploration off its southern coastline.
In a speech in Singapore Tuesday, Austin condemned Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea. He said China’s territorial claim “has no basis in international law.”
“Limits” to ties
On Sunday, the U.S. shipped 3 million doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Vietnam. That raised the amount given to Vietnam by the U.S. through the global COVAX program to 5 million doses.
But Poling said there was a limit to how fast and far the Vietnamese would deepen ties with the Americans.
Experts say Vietnam’s concerns about the U.S. remain from the Trump Administration. Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement in 2017.
There are also limits to how far the United States is willing to increase relations if Vietnam does not improve its human rights record.
Vietnam has seen economic reforms and social change in recent decades. The ruling Communist Party, however, keeps tight control over the media and accepts little political debate.
In a meeting with Austin on Thursday morning, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc said he was looking forward to an upcoming visit by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris. A source told the Reuters news agency that Harris could be traveling to Vietnam and Singapore in August.
I’m Dan Novak.
Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English from reporting by Reuters and The Associated Press. Susan Shand was the editor.
Words in This Story
ensure — v. to make (something) sure, certain, or safe
chart — v. to make a plan for (something)
engaged — adj. busy with some activity
basis — n. a reason for doing something