HANOI, Vietnam — President Joe Biden on Monday wrapped up a five-day diplomatic sprint through Vietnam and India that put a spotlight on imperfect partners that he believes will be crucial for global stability in the years to come.
The whirlwind visit demonstrated that as Russia’s war on Ukraine plods on with no end in sight, Biden appears to have become more willing to look past differences with complicated allies that he badly needs to keep close for the sake of stability in the Indo-Pacific, Middle East and beyond.
Biden closed out his Asia trip in Hanoi on Monday by spotlighting new business deals and partnerships with Vietnam after celebrating the Communist government’s elevation of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to a comprehensive strategic partnership.
“My message today is quite simple: Let’s keep it up,” Biden said of his desire to keep strengthening the nations’ partnership during a meeting with CEOs. “We need to develop and drive our collaboration. We need to forge new partnerships.”
He denied the steps were meant to counter China’s increasing efforts for influence in the region.
The president’s pragmatic approach was also on display over the weekend at the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi in his friendly interactions with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, two leaders who have not shied from saying no to Biden and have paid little regard when he has raised concerns about their human rights records.
In Hanoi, Biden showcased the new elevated U.S. diplomatic status with Vietnam even as the country is reported to be nearing a weapons deal with Russia that would contravene U.S. prohibitions on countries doing business with Russian military and intelligence agencies. That could put Biden in the awkward position of having to decide whether or not to sanction a nation that he has put great effort into courting.
“It is important to acknowledge Vietnam has had a decadeslong relationship with Russia and a decadeslong military relationship with Russia,” said Jon Finer, Biden’s principal deputy national security adviser. “But our strong sense is that there is an increasing discomfort on the part of the Vietnamese with that relationship.”
Major business announcements during Biden’s first-ever visit to Vietnam included Boeing’s $7.5 billion deal with Vietnam Airlines to buy about 50 aircraft and Arizona-based Amkor Technology’s plans for a $1.6 billion factory in Bac Ninh Province.
Biden insisted his visit to Vietnam was about burnishing stronger ties with Hanoi and sought to push back against the notion that his travels were connected to Washington’s tensions with Beijing. The U.S.-China relationship has been strained by the U.S. shooting down a Chinese spy balloon that traversed the continental United States, Taiwan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and other issues.
“I don’t want to contain China,” Biden said during a Hanoi news conference after he met with Nguyễn Phú Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, for the formal announcement of the elevation of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship. “We’re not trying to hurt China.”
Yet his administration has put a premium on strengthening relations in the Indo-Pacific in the face of growing concerns about China’s military and economic assertiveness.
Biden’s effort to delicately put aside differences over the Russian invasion was on display over the weekend in New Delhi.
At the G-20 summit, Biden warmly greeted Saudi Arabian Crown Prince bin Salman, less than a year after warning the Saudis that they would pay “consequences” for padding Moscow’s coffers by engineering a cut in oil production that spiked the price of crude.
The hearty handshake between Biden and the crown prince — which was joined by an ebullient Indian Prime Minister Modi — stood in stark contrast to the awkward fist bump that Biden and bin Salman shared last summer during a visit to the kingdom by Biden as the global economy grappled with rising oil prices and historic inflation.
That fist bump outraged many activists and others who were already upset at Biden’s decision to meet with a Saudi leader widely criticized for human rights violations and the murder of U.S.-based writer Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden had refused to speak to Prince Mohammed at the start of his administration. As a presidential candidate in 2020, he said he wanted to make the Saudis “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
The differences over oil production between the Saudis and the United States remain unresolved. Saudi Arabia and Russia announced last week that they had agreed to extend their voluntary oil production cuts through the end of this year, trimming 1.3 million barrels of crude out of the global market and boosting energy prices.
But the White House has stopped pressing the issue, at least in public.
Instead, the administration has put more focus on working with the Saudis to end their yearslong war with Yemen. The administration has also begun laying the groundwork for a potential normalization of relations between rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia, a dramatic accomplishment if Biden can pull it off.
At the G-20, Biden thanked the crown prince for joining an ambitious plan to build a rail and shipping corridor linking India with the Middle East and Europe. The corridor would help boost trade, deliver energy resources and improve digital connectivity. In addition to India and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Israel and the European Union have signed on.
The White House said the project is not seen as a precursor to a potential normalization deal but characterized Israel’s inclusion as significant.
“Saudi Arabia obviously contributed substantially,” Finer said.
Biden also had praise for India’s Modi, this year’s G-20 host, for running a successful summit — even as the Modi government dismissed the Biden administration’s lobbying for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to be invited.
Zelenskyy has used such high-profile gatherings to argue for continued economic and military support for his country. India is one of the most prominent U.S. allies that has largely stayed on the sidelines of the war, and has even dramatically increased its purchases of Russian oil.
“Ultimately, it is not our decision,” Finer said of the decision not to invite Zelenskyy to the G-20.
Modi, too, has been criticized for his human rights record. Biden, in his news conference, volunteered that he had raised with Modi the importance “of respecting human rights and the vital role that civil society and a free press have in building a strong and prosperous country.”
Before departing Vietnam on Monday afternoon, Biden paid his respects at a memorial honoring his late friend and colleague Sen. John McCain, who endured a lengthy imprisonment in Hanoi during the Vietnam War.
The stone memorial is located near where McCain’s Skyhawk dive bomber was shot down in 1967 by the North Vietnamese. Both sides exchanged documents Monday on unaccounted-for U.S. service members and Vietnamese soldiers. Biden left one of his commemorative coins at the memorial.
At a state luncheon hosted by Võ Văn Thưởng, Biden praised McCain and John Kerry — another Vietnam War veteran and now the president’s climate envoy — for playing critical roles in the two nations’ “50-year arc of progress.”
“Where there was darkness, you all found light,” Biden said.