US’ Harris vows to support Vietnam amid South China Sea tensions

South China Sea
South China Sea

US Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday urged Vietnam to forge closer ties with Washington to counter what she described as Beijing’s “bullying” in the region.

“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 during a meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Wednesday morning.

Harris’ comments continue Washington’s recent vocal criticism of China. During a speech in Singapore on Tuesday morning, Harris said Beijing’s aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea amount to “coercion” and “intimidation.”

Beijing claims almost all of the South China Sea as its territory – despite multiple claims by other countries, including Vietnam – and has built artificial islands with military-capable facilities over reefs and outcrops in the area.

Harris said the United States will donate a new coastguard cutter to Vietnam to help the country defend its maritime territory. Vietnam has already received two coastguard cutters from the US.

In addition, Washington announced it would elevate the bilateral ties between the two nations to the level of a so-called “strategic partnership.” Harris also told President Phuc that the relationship between the two countries “has come a long way in a quarter of a century.”

But while the US is hopeful for strengthened security ties with Vietnam, Hanoi remains wary.

“Vietnam will not upgrade the relationship at this point because it does not want to provoke China,” Pham Quang Minh, former dean of the University for Social Science and Humanities in Hanoi and one of the Communist Party’s most respected international relations experts, told dpa.

During her visit, Harris launched a new Centres for Disease Control and Prevention South-East Asia regional office, which opens as Vietnam faces its worst wave of the coronavirus since the pandemic began. Deaths from Covid-19 are soaring throughout the country.

Harris’ visit, which began on Tuesday and ends on Thursday, is the first time a US vice president has visited Vietnam since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

Just ahead of the visit, China donated two million doses of the Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine to the South-East Asian nation as the two superpowers compete for influence.

The vice president said on Tuesday that the US would gift Vietnam an extra 1 million Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine doses which would be arriving within 24 hours.
Harris arrival in Vietnam was delayed on Tuesday amid reports of what embassy officials called a “possible anomalous health incident in Hanoi.”

“Anomalous health incident” is a phrase Washington has used in the past to describe Havana syndrome – a condition linked to symptoms including dizziness, nausea, migraines and memory lapses, which was first reported by officials at the US embassy in Cuba.

Two US diplomats will be medically evacuated from Vietnam after Havana syndrome-style symptoms were reported over the weekend in Hanoi, two senior US officials said, according to NBC news.

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