US V-P Kamala Harris pushes ahead with Vietnam trip despite mystery ‘health incident’

Ms Harris flew to Vietnam on Tuesday after a three-hour delay in Singapore. PHOTO: REUTERS

HANOI (REUTERS) - United States Vice-President Kamala Harris pushed ahead with a trip to Vietnam on Tuesday (Aug 24) after delaying the visit over concerns due to a health incident potentially related to the mysterious Havana syndrome.

Ms Harris arrived in the South-east Asian country's capital after a three-hour delay in Singapore that the US government blamed on reports that someone in Hanoi may have Havana syndrome, a condition of unknown origin with symptoms including dizziness, nausea, migraines and memory lapses.

The incident upstaged a bid by US President Joe Biden's top deputy to woo the allies Washington hopes will help it challenge China's assertive foreign policy in the region.

Beijing, meanwhile, attempted to stage its own diplomatic coup with a surprise meeting in Vietnam and a donation of two million Covid-19 vaccines to the country.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the Havana syndrome case was reported in Vietnam before Ms Harris' departure but not confirmed. A safety assessment was done before sending Ms Harris to the country, she said.

"The Vice-President's office was made aware of a report of a recent possible anomalous health incident in Hanoi," the local US Embassy said.

Some 200 US officials and kin, including Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers, have been sickened by Havana syndrome, CIA director William Burns has said.

A US National Academy of Sciences panel in December found that a plausible theory is that "directed energy" beams caused the syndrome, which is so named because it first was reported by American officials based in the US embassy in Cuba in 2016.

The CIA sees a "very strong possibility" that the syndrome is intentionally caused and that Russia could be responsible, but is withholding definitive conclusions pending further investigation. Moscow denies any involvement.

Vietnam says it picks no sides

The incident came as Washington faces icy relations with another global competitor, China.

As Ms Harris' trip to Vietnam was delayed, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh held the unannounced meeting with Chinese Ambassador Xiong Bo, during which Mr Chinh said Vietnam does not align itself with one country against any other.

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Earlier on Tuesday, Ms Harris had accused Beijing of coercion and intimidation to back claims in the South China Sea, her most pointed comments on China during a visit to South-east Asia, a region she said is critical to US security.

"The Prime Minister affirmed that Vietnam adheres to an independent, self-reliant, multilateral and diverse foreign policy and is a responsible member of the international community," the Vietnamese government said in a statement.

"Vietnam does not align itself with one country against another," it said.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be settled according to international law and "high-level common sense", it said.

The US administration has called rivalry with China "the biggest geopolitical test" of the century.

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"The fact that China's ambassador insisted on a meeting with the Vietnamese Prime Minister shortly before Harris landed shows how anxious Beijing is that its communist neighbour may tilt towards the US," said Mr Murray Hiebert, a South-east Asia expert at Washington's Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

During the meeting, Mr Chinh thanked the ambassador for the vaccine donation. It was not immediately clear which vaccine China had donated.

Vietnam had successfully contained the coronavirus for most of last year, but since April, it has been dealing with a large Covid-19 outbreak in Ho Chi Minh City, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus. Just under 2 per cent of its 98 million people are fully vaccinated.

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