US Defense Secretary Arrives in Vietnam for Talks on Regional Security

Special to BenarNews
2021-07-28
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US Defense Secretary Arrives in Vietnam for Talks on Regional Security Lt. Gen. Vu Chien Thang, director of the Foreign Relations Department of Vietnam’s Ministry of National Defense, welcomes U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi, July 28, 2021.
U.S. Embassy in Hanoi

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Vietnam on Wednesday for talks scheduled on regional security issues, including the South China Sea, where Beijing has encroached on waters and maritime resources claimed both by Vietnam, the Philippines and others.

Austin was scheduled to meet with his Vietnamese counterpart, Minister of Defense Gen. Phan Van Giang, and with President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, in the first visit to Hanoi by a high-ranking American official since the Biden administration took office in January. From Hanoi, the Pentagon chief was set to travel on to Manila on Thursday, his final stop on a three-nation tour in Southeast Asia.

The talks in Hanoi were likely to focus on efforts by the U.S. and its allies and partners “to meet the region’s security challenges, and cooperation ins maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at Australia’s University of South Wales Canberra, in remarks sent by email to the Vietnamese Service of Radio Free Asia. BenarNews is affiliated with RFA.

The COVID-19 recovery – a theme of Austin’s speech in Singapore on Tuesday – would also likely be a focus of the talks, Thayer said. The defense secretary had presented a detailed list of U.S. assistance on offer, including testing equipment, oxygen cylinders, ventilators, vaccine storage and mobile clinics, according to Thayer.

The United States 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 on Sunday alone, according to news sources.

Secretary Austin was also expected to take part in a ceremony honoring Vietnam’s war dead, Thayer said, adding that a Memorandum of Understanding reportedly would be signed “regarding U.S. assistance to identify the locations and remains of Vietnamese soldiers who died in the Vietnam War.”

Strategic partnership

Also in comments sent to RFA, Ha Hoan Hop – visiting senior fellow at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies – said that the two sides, in Thursday’s talks, “will exchange information about security and peace situations in the Indo-Pacific area and in Southeast Asia, especially in the South China Sea.”

There is also a possibility that discussions will be held on raising the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam from a “comprehensive partnership” to a “strategic partnership,” Hop said, adding, “That [will be] the core topic in the talks between the two defense ministers, as well as in the meeting with the Vietnamese president and prime minister.”

“This is also an opportunity for the U.S. defense secretary to see how the coastguard ships that the U.S. donated to the Vietnamese coastguard are being used. There might also be some other secret talks that they will not reveal to the public,” Hop said.

In his speech in Singapore on Tuesday, Austin repeated the American view that China’s claim to almost all the South China Sea “has no basis in international law” and “treads on the sovereignty of states in the region,” according to a transcript from the Pentagon. 

“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 – among other issues – allegations of genocide and crimes against humanity by China against Uyghur Muslims in the northwest Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Speaking in response in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused the U.S. of interfering in China’s internal affairs and sowing discord among regional countries “with the aim of serving its own geopolitical interest.”

“We admonish the U.S. side not to make an issue about China at every turn and do more for the benefit of peace and stability in the region,” Zhao said.

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