HANOI (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - US Vice-President Kamala Harris on Wednesday (Aug 25) urged countries in the region to apply more pressure on China in a meeting with Vietnam's president, stepping her criticism of Beijing on a visit to Asia.
She said the United States welcomes competition and does not seek conflict with Beijing, but will speak up on issues like the South China Sea.
"We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims," Ms Harris said at the start of a meeting in Hanoi with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
She said the United States wants to upgrade its relationship with Vietnam to a strategic partnership, and said the Biden administration strongly supports the former US adversary's request for a third former US Coast Guard cutter.
Ms Harris' speech on Wednesday was the second time in two days that she has attacked Beijing during her regional visit.
Ms Harris told a news conference marking the end of a trip to South-east Asia: "We are going to speak up when there are actions that Beijing takes that threaten the rules-based international order."
Earlier in the day, Chinese state media accused Ms Harris of seeking to drive a wedge between China and South-east Asian nations with comments in Singapore that Beijing used coercion and intimidation to back its unlawful South China Sea claims.
China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, lay claim to parts of the South China Sea, which is crossed by vital shipping lanes and contains gas fields and rich fishing grounds.
China has established military outposts on artificial islands in the South China Sea and objects to foreign warships sailing through what it claims is its sovereign waters.
The US Navy regularly conducts "freedom of navigation" operations through the disputed waters, which China objects to, saying they do not help promote peace or stability.
In 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China's claim, but Beijing has rejected the ruling.
Chinese state media hits back
"While pointing a finger at China and accusing it of 'coercion' and 'intimidation', Harris wilfully ignored her own hypocrisy in attempting to coerce and intimidate regional countries to join Washington in its scheme to contain China," the state-run China Daily said in an editorial responding to Ms Harris' comments in Singapore.
Ms Harris' Singapore speech was a baseless attack on China, the editorial said.
"It seems that the United States' only commitment to South-east Asia is its dedicated efforts to drive a wedge between the south-east Asian nations and China," it added.
The US administration has called rivalry with China "the biggest geopolitical test" of the century and South-east Asia has seen a series of high-profile visits by top administration officials, including Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, who visited Hanoi in late July.
China is Vietnam's largest trading partner and Vietnam is heavily reliant on materials and equipment from China for its manufacturing activities.
Their ruling Communist Parties maintain close ties, but Vietnam and China have been embroiled in a long-standing dispute over maritime claims in the South China Sea, known as the East Sea in Vietnam.
The tensions have propelled Vietnam into being one of the most vocal opponents of Beijing's claims in the disputed waterway and Hanoi has received US military hardware, including coastguard cutters.
Ties between Hanoi and Washington have grown closer more than four decades after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, although Washington has said there are limits to the relationship until Hanoi makes progress on human rights.
Analysts say Vietnam wants to upgrade its diplomatic relationship with the US to a "strategic partnership" but is concerned such a move would anger Beijing.
US and China's vaccine diplomacy
On Wednesday, also said the US would donate an additional 1 million Pfizer vaccines to Vietnam, which would start arriving within the next 24 hours, bringing the total to 6 million so far.
Vaccines have been at the forefront of an American diplomatic offensive in South-east Asia, with the region accounting for about a fifth of all doses the US has given globally.
The Biden administration is aiming to bolster ties with countries in China's backyard, with Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and now Ms Harris visiting the region over the past few weeks.
Mr Phuc, who spoke before Ms Harris, said US assistance on vaccinations "is truly valuable and meaningful to Vietnam at a time when we are facing with ample difficulties posed by the Covid- 19 pandemic".
Press were escorted out of their meeting room before any Vietnamese officials commented on her suggested diplomatic upgrades. Mr Phuc did not mention China in his remarks.
While Vietnam has become increasingly worried about China's assertiveness over disputed territory, it has avoided overtly siding against Beijing along with other South-east Asian nations keen to balance ties between the world's biggest economies.
Vietnam announced on Tuesday that China would give it another 2 million vaccine doses, with Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh telling Beijing's envoy that his country maintains an independent foreign policy and wouldn't join an alliance against another country.
Vaccine diplomacy is also a critical part of China's political calculus.
Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this month announced plans to expand vaccine exports to two billion doses this year, matching commitments by Group of Seven nations.
Just 1.9 per cent of Vietnam's population has been fully vaccinated, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, among the lowest vaccination rates anywhere in Asia.
Ms Harris will later on Wednesday hold a discussion with South-east Asian officials on health security, before launching the Southeast Asia regional office for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. The US has donated 5 million vaccine doses to Vietnam, the Embassy in Hanoi said last month.
Ms Harris' trip to Singapore and Vietnam has been overshadowed by Afghanistan, where a rapid collapse of the US-backed government has left the Biden administration rushing to evacuate Americans and those who assisted their 20-year war effort against the Taleban, which now controls almost all of the country.
Photographs of helicopters over Kabul evoked images of air rescues from Saigon - now known as Ho Chi Minh City - more than 45 years ago, lending Harris' previously scheduled visit to Vietnam an unplanned historical echo.
"US businesses and other businesses from the other parts of the world see huge opportunities for growth," Mr Ted Osius, president and CEO of the US-Asean Business Council, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
"Security is really about more than ships and planes, it's also about ties between nations, and what I think the vice-president is doing is cementing those ties in multiple areas on the two stops of her trip."
Ms Harris' departure from Singapore on Tuesday was delayed for more than three hours because of concerns about "an anomalous health incident" in Hanoi, the State Department said.
The phrase "anomalous health incidents" describes so-called Havana syndrome, which has afflicted dozens of US diplomats and intelligence officials who describe feeling ill and other unusual physical sensations after hearing strange sounds. The US has not determined a cause for the affliction.