Three days into high-profile visits to the capitals of India and Vietnam, President Joe Biden said that his presence and moves to strengthen ties with China’s neighbors weren’t designed to “contain” Beijing.
And he repeated that phrase — again and again.
“I don’t want to contain China,” he said during a news conference in Hanoi shortly after elevating the U.S.-Vietnam relationship and palling around with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “We’re not trying to hurt China.” Under his watch, Biden said America’s goal is “getting the relationship right” between the world’s two foremost powers.
Biden’s team has said previously it doesn’t aim to curb China’s rise, even when it imposes strict export controls on technologies crucial for its military development and takes steps to move closer to other countries in Asia. But the remarks, and the setting of the message, is the strongest signal the administration has sent to Beijing that it doesn’t want to foment a new Cold War.
Biden arrived in India on Friday for a summit of the G20 before traveling Sunday morning to Vietnam for an official upgrade in the bilateral relationship. While U.S. officials openly stressed the Asia sojourn was about rallying allies to work together on climate change, development and a shifting global economy, they privately hinted that better ties with New Delhi and Hanoi would boost America’s regional position.
But Biden denied that his presence halfway around the world from Washington was intended to boost America’s regional standing at China’s expense. “It’s not about containing China,” he repeated. “It’s about having a stable base, a stable base in the Indo-Pacific.”
“We think too much in Cold War terms,” Biden told reporters who peppered him with questions about the state of U.S.-China ties. “I am sincere about getting the relationship right.”
The way the U.S. can do that, the president insisted, is by ensuring China plays by “the rules of the game” — that is, the tenets of the rules-based international order the United States helped create from the embers of World War II.
“I just want to make sure we have a relationship with China that is on the up and up, squared away. Everybody knows what it’s all about,” Biden said.
It’s not clear Beijing knows. Last week, China’s top security agency said that any future meeting between Biden and Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping would hinge on U.S. “sincerity” for meaningful dialogue. The president hopes to meet his Chinese counterpart face-to-face at a gathering of Pacific nations later this year in San Francisco, especially since Xi didn’t attend the G20.
Biden suggested that he hasn’t met with Xi in 10 months because the Chinese leader “has his hands full” with a sputtering economy.
“He has overwhelming unemployment with his youth. One of the major economic tenets of his plan isn’t working at all right now,” he said, adding that Beijing’s woes are “less likely to cause that kind of conflict” between the U.S. and China. “It’s not like there’s a crisis if I don’t personally speak to him.”
Xi, however, was not likely to be pleased with the U.S. boosting its partnership with Vietnam. Both countries are now locked in a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” the highest such distinction for a relationship the Communist country can have with another nation. That doesn’t mean Hanoi is a Washington ally now — a no-longer-secret arms deal with Russia is case in point — but it does indicate that Vietnam fears Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea while it’s grateful for its economic windfall from the U.S.-China trade war.
Tensions over human rights arose during Biden’s mostly cordial visit, though. Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of Vietnam’s Communist Party, emphasized the importance of “non-interference in domestic affairs,” a clear signal that he expects no reprimands for politically motivated killings and other atrocities.
Biden, who is facing criticism for the G20 communiqué that weakened language in support of Ukraine to secure Russia’s buy-in, said he brought up Hanoi’s humanitarian violations with Nguyen. But it was clear the president had his eyes on the larger strategic picture.
“I think we have an enormous opportunity,” Biden said earlier Sunday inside Hanoi’s presidential palace as cameras whirred and flashed. “Vietnam and the United States are critical partners at what I would argue is a very critical time. I’m not saying that to be polite.”
Biden has one more day in Vietnam. Though he will meet other senior Vietnamese officials, the highlight will be the president’s visit to a memorial of a former Senate colleague, the late John McCain. The Arizona Republican was notoriously held as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, and Biden will pay his respects with Vietnam War veteran John Kerry alongside him.
Biden will then board Air Force One en route to Alaska where he’ll mark the Sept. 11 anniversary during a stop to an Air Force base in Anchorage.