Blinken launches Vietnam visit amid hopes for deeper links to counter China

HANOI (Reuters) – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday launched a trip to Vietnam, a key Southeast Asian trading partner with which Washington wants to strengthen ties to offset China’s growing assertiveness in the region and beyond.

In his first trip to the country as the top US diplomat, Blinken will meet senior Vietnamese officials including Vietnamese Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh.

He will also officially break ground on a new US embassy campus in Hanoi on Saturday before traveling to Japan for a meeting of the Group of Seven Wealthy Nations on Sunday.

The United States faces the challenge of building a coalition in Southeast Asia to confront China and deter any possible Beijing action against Taiwan. Many countries in the region are reluctant to upset their giant neighbor, which is not only a military power but also a key trading partner and source of investment.

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For Hanoi, being open to more cooperation with Washington without angering Beijing has been a difficult balancing act, despite Vietnam’s alarmed by China’s growing military claims in the South China Sea.

The diplomatic calculus is further complicated by the ever-closer ties between Beijing and Moscow, which last year declared a partnership without borders shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Last month there was a phone call between US President Joe Biden and Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong that, along with Blinken’s visit, could lead to a meeting between the two in July, the 10th anniversary of the existing formal bilateral Partnership, say analysts.

But while the United States is likely to push for stronger ties with Vietnam, Hanoi may not share the enthusiasm, said Rand Corporation analyst Derek Grossman.

“Firstly, from a Vietnamese perspective, there is no need to unnecessarily anger China… secondly, Hanoi wants to avoid appearing openly as part of the US Indo-Pacific strategy designed to counter China,” he said.

Blinken is also expected to raise human rights issues with Vietnamese officials. Rights groups have regularly raised concerns about the treatment of dissidents in the communist country.

Earlier this week, a court in Hanoi sentenced a prominent Vietnamese political activist to six years in prison for anti-state activities, his lawyer said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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