SEOUL, South Korea — The press conference by a clearly fatigued President Biden dominated much attention on his two-day trip to Vietnam, but despite the dodgy optics, administration officials say the trip helped fill in spaces on the fast-evolving Indo-Pacific strategic map.
Critics of the 80-year-old president’s stamina will have new ammunition after Mr. Biden‘s handlers ended a press conference by apparently cutting off the microphone in Hanoi, after a tired-looking Mr. Biden announced he was heading to bed.
But the U.S. delegation, which was joined by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, achieved some more tangible results in the latest sign that China‘s aggression is fueling a distinct regional backlash.
Mr. Biden declined to rub it in, even offering fig leaves to Vietnam’s northern neighbor and saying China should not be concerned about warming ties between Washington and Hanoi.
“It’s not about containing China,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s about having a stable base.”
The highlight of Mr. Biden‘s talks with Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong was the widely anticipated announcement that Vietnam was elevating the U.S. to the status of “comprehensive strategic partner.”
“We have an opportunity to strengthen alliances around the world to maintain stability,” Mr. Biden continued. “That’s what this trip is all about.”
On Sunday, the two sides signed a bilateral memorandum to boost Vietnam‘s semiconductor industry in support of U.S. customers. U.S. aerospace giant Boeing signed a $7.8 billion deal to sell 50 737 aircraft to Vietnam, while other companies, including Microsoft and NVIDIA, agreed to partner with Vietnamese players in artificial intelligence — a field Chinese officials say they hope to dominate.
Alliance-building has been Mr. Biden’s central focus in the Indo-Pacific, emphasized in the Hanoi trip and in the prior stop in India for the G20 summit. In 2021, he oversaw the signing of the AUKUS agreement with Australia and the U.K., and this year the U.S. has negotiated new troop basing agreements with the Philippines and increased trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea.
Vietnam lies on China’s southwestern flank, and has traditionally held strong sway over its smaller neighbors, Cambodia and Laos.
“Vietnam is strategically sited, it has a border with China and a long littoral on the South China Sea,” said Mason Richey, an international relations expert at Seoul’s Hankook University of Foreign Studies. “Even if you don’t have bases there, you can have some influence in that area.
While they have an extensive economic relationship, China and Vietnam also fought a border war in 1979 and today overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea have led to naval clashes. This offers potential openings for Washington.
Vietnam has traditionally bought arms – including submarines – from Russia, a spigot Washington would like to turn off. A source in the arms industry said he anticipates Vietnam moving toward more Western arms suppliers in the near future.
For now, though, the U.S.-Vietnam defense relationship is low-key.
“A lot of it is focused on coast guard patrol capabilities and maritime domain awareness, and this has been in discussion for several years,” said Singapore-based Alex Neill, a security expert with the Pacific Forum think tank.
The relationship between Beijing’s and Hanoi’s communist parties is cordial. However, as rising labor costs and political risk compel a range of international businesses to exit China, Vietnam has been attracting nervous investors seeking an alternative.
In 2022, Vietnam was the fourth-largest economy in Southeast Asia, with a population of 94.7 million. It has a youthful, disciplined workforce and growing muscle in high technologies, served by a range of booming industrial parks countrywide.
Mr. Biden has faced pressure from China hawks on Capitol Hill to cut back the U.S. economy’s reliance on Chinese competitors, but Mr. Biden may also have taken a political risk embracing such close ties with a Communist regime in Hanoi with a highly questionable record on human right and civil liberties.
“I am sure that is not lost on the political opposition in the U.S.,” said Mr. Neill, noting the parade held by Hanoi in Mr. Biden’s honor. “If the U.S. Congress is willing to turn a blind eye in exchange for trade opportunities and having a dig at China — well. That is interesting.”
At least officially, China‘s Communist regime took Mr. Biden‘s visit in stride, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning telling reporters Monday in Beijing that Vietnam has repeatedly said its “top priority” has been “stable and sound” relations with its giant neighbor to the north.
“We demand that the U.S., when dealing with Asian countries, respect the common aspirations of regional countries for stability, cooperation, and development, abide by the basic norms of international relations, and abandon hegemony and Cold War mentality,” Mr. Mao said.