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Radio Free Asia

US Defense Secretary Arrives in Vietnam for Talks on Regional Security

2021-07-28 -- 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 China has encroached on waters and maritime resources claimed both by Vietnam, the Philippines and others.

Austin will meet on Thursday with his counterpart, Minister of Defense Gen. Phan Van Giang, and with Vietnam's President Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh, in the first visit to Vietnam by a high-ranking U.S. official since U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January.

Talks on Thursday will likely 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 RFA's Vietnamese Service.

Talks will also likely focus on COVID recovery, a theme of Austin's speech in Singapore on Tuesday, Thayer said, adding that 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.

The U.S. 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 is also expected to take part in a ceremony honoring Vietnam's war dead, Thayer said, adding that a Memorandum of Understanding reportedly will 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 US defense secretary to see how the coastguard ships that the US 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 Tuesday speech in Singapore, his first visit in the region with a final stop in the Philippines on Friday, Austin repeated the U.S. view that China's claim to almost all the South China Sea "has no basis in international law" and encroaches on the sovereignty of other states in the region, the Associated Press said in a report early Wednesday.

"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 recent Chinese aggressive moves against India military threats against Taiwan, and genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghur Muslims in northwest China's region of Xinjiang.

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.

Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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