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September 11, 2023
Yesterday, President Joe Biden was in Hanoi, Vietnam, where he and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong announced they were elevating U.S.-Vietnam relations from the comprehensive partnership agreement President Barack Obama signed in 2013 to a comprehensive strategic partnership, Vietnam’s highest tier of international partnership. The earlier measure called for cooperation in transnational crime and public health; the new measure will boost Vietnam's high-technology sector and security.
The visit to Vietnam was part of the administration’s continuing push to loosen China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific by strengthening other countries in the region. China has had a comprehensive strategic partnership with Vietnam since 1998; Russia has had one since 2012.
Biden’s visit to Vietnam came just after Vice President Kamala Harris’s attendance at the U.S.- Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Biden’s attendance at the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi, where he and the leaders of India, Brazil, and South Africa—all members of BRICS, the economic bloc that includes China—reaffirmed their “shared commitment to the G20 as the premier forum for international economic cooperation to deliver solutions for our shared world.”
Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy has been central to his presidency, and he has marked a number of firsts in U.S.-Indo-Pacific relationships. In September 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. announced a trilateral security pact called AUKUS. In May 2022 the White House held the ASEAN summit in Washington, D.C., for the first time in the organization’s 45-year history; later that summer the U.S. opened a number of embassies in the Pacific Islands region and appointed the first-ever U.S. envoy to the Pacific Islands Forum. In June 2023, Biden hosted a state dinner for Indian prime minister Narendra Modi. In August, Biden held a historic trilateral meeting at Camp David with the leaders of Japan and the Republic of Korea.
At the same time, the administration has worked to improve communications with China. In June 2023, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Beijing for two days and met with Chinese president Xi Jinping. Since then, the administration has tried to demonstrate that it is willing to work with China on economic issues, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen traveled to China in July and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo visited at the end of August.
Raimondo emphasized that the U.S. is not interested in “containing China’s economic development,” as Chinese leaders have charged, but needs to protect U.S. national security, preventing exports of U.S. technology that can be used by the Chinese military. Raimondo emphasized that the world needs the U.S. and China to manage their relationship “responsibly.” She said the Biden administration wants “to have a stable commercial relationship, and the core to that is regular communication.”
Chinese officials praised Raimondo, saying her visit rendered “rational, candid, pragmatic and constructive communications on China-U.S. relations and economic and trade cooperation.” But facing the twin problems of a faltering economy and negative population growth, Xi appears to be trying to shore up an economic bloc—BRICS—in which China can exercise a more powerful influence than it can in the G20. He chose not to attend the G20 summit in New Delhi, possibly to downplay India’s growing global power, and observers were concerned that Premier Li Qiang, who attended in his place, might throw a monkey wrench in the works of a G20 joint statement. Instead, Xi’s absence allowed India’s president Modi to take center stage, and the summit produced a joint statement on its first day.
After the summit, Biden traveled to Vietnam, which shares an 806-mile (~1,300 km) land border with China and has an ongoing dispute with China over Beijing’s asserting authority over parts of the South China Sea that are more than 1,000 miles (~1,600 km) from China’s coast. Last month, satellite images appeared to show that China is building an airstrip on an island Vietnam claims as its territory.
Amidst news that Vietnam is secretly engaged in talks to buy arms from Russia, Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer told the press that the U.S.-Vietnam partnership shows that the U.S. and aligned countries can offer an alternative to countries that have previously worked with Russia and are now finding that relationship “increasingly uncomfortable.” When asked if that partnership might eventually include military aid, Finer responded that the partnership is “comprehensive and strategic” and that “[i]t’s hard to imagine a relationship that is both comprehensive and strategic that doesn’t have a security dimension.”
While acknowledging in speeches the changing relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam over the past 50 years, Biden was careful not to appear to have forgotten the American experience in the Vietnam War. Before leaving for India and Vietnam, he awarded the Medal of Honor to 81-year-old Captain Larry Taylor, who as a 1st lieutenant during the war in Vietnam flew his Cobra attack helicopter into heavy enemy fire to rescue four members of a reconnaissance team who were surrounded by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops in a maneuver army officers said had never before been attempted.
In more than 2,000 combat missions, Taylor never lost a man. “You just do whatever is expedient and do whatever to save the lives of the people you’re trying to rescue,” he said. After his discharge from the Army in 1970, Taylor ran a roofing and sheet metal company in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In Hanoi, Biden visited a memorial for the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ), who was a prisoner of war in Hanoi for five and a half years from 1967, when he was shot down, to 1973. “I miss him,” Biden said. “He was a good friend.” Biden and McCain served in the Senate together for three decades. Biden’s tribute to McCain contrasted sharply with the 2019 request from then-president Trump’s White House team that a warship named for McCain, his father, and his grandfather, be hidden from Trump during a visit to Japan. McCain had clashed with Trump despite their shared political affiliation.
Like Biden, Vietnam’s leader Vo Van Thuong welcomed “an enduring, stable long-term framework that opens up a vast space for further development of the bond between us for decades to follow.” But he did note in his remarks at a state luncheon at the presidential palace that President Ho Chi Minh, the leader of North Vietnam during the early years of the Vietnam War, had asked President Harry Truman for just such a relationship only months after Vietnam gained its independence from France in 1945. “As history would have it, this desire had to confront countless turmoil and challenges,” he said, “all of such we have overcome…. From former enemies to Comprehensive Strategic Partners, this is truly a model in the history of international relations as to how reconciliation and relationship-building should proceed after a war.”
In other international news today, the administration announced it has cleared the way for a deal with Iran to release five U.S. citizens detained in Iran. Last month, Iran moved four dual citizens from the infamous Evin Prison to house arrest, and now it is expected to release those four and one more who was already under house arrest in exchange for five Iranian prisoners and the release of $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue currently held in South Korea.
Several Republicans have opposed the deal. The senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James E. Risch of Idaho, said that the “unfreezing” of funds “incentivizes hostage taking & provides a windfall for regime aggression,” and Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) called the money “ransom” and said it was a “craven act of appeasement.”
But in an op-ed on the national security website Defense One last month, Ryan Costello, the policy director for the National Iranian American Council, called the deal a win-win. The Iranian money will be released to Qatar, which will release it for purchases of food and medicine, which are not sanctioned. Medicine is desperately needed in Iran, and as Biden said in 2020: “Whatever our profound differences with the Iranian government, we should support the Iranian people.”
Today is the 50th anniversary of the military coup in Chile that overthrew the democratically elected government of leftist President Salvador Allende, a coup aided by the U.S. government’s Central Intelligence Agency under President Richard Nixon and his national security advisor Henry Kissinger. The State Department issued a statement calling the anniversary “an opportunity to reflect on this break in Chile’s democratic order and the suffering that it caused.”
While remaining silent on the U.S. role in that coup, the State Department noted that the Biden administration had sought to be transparent about that role by declassifying information. It said, “We pay our deepest respects to the victims of the repression that followed and honor the extraordinary bravery and sacrifices of countless Chileans who stood up for human rights and fought for an end to dictatorship and a peaceful return to democracy,” and it reaffirmed the U.S. “fullest commitment to supporting democracy and upholding human rights.”
This reassurance likely seems too easy to the human rights advocates who worry that stronger U.S. ties to India and Vietnam, both of which have troubling human rights records, will send a message that the U.S. is willing to tolerate human rights violations in strategically important countries. Biden says he pushes human rights in private talks with those countries’ leaders.
After commemorating the attacks of September 11, 2001, in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at Ground Zero in New York City, and at the Pentagon in 2021 and 2022, Biden today spoke at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, on his way home from Vietnam. He called for national unity to honor the nearly 3,000 people lost that day, urging people to remember “what we can do together. To remember what was destroyed, what can we repair, what was threatened, what we fortified, what was attacked—an indomitable American spirit prevailed over all of it.”
In his speech, Biden recalled Senator McCain as a man who always put country “above party, above politics, above his own person. This day reminds us we must never lose that sense of national unity. So, let that be the common cause of our time: let us honor September 11 by renewing our faith in one another.”