HANOI, Vietnam — President Joe Biden sought to downplay friction with China and insisted he isn’t trying to constrain the country’s rise, even as he spent a weekend in Asia strengthening ties with other countries seen as bulwarks against Chinese economic and military clout.
“I don’t want to contain China,” Biden said at a news conference Sunday, hours after he arrived here in Vietnam’s capital for meetings with the country’s leaders. “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.
“We’re not looking to hurt China — sincerely,” he added. “We’re all better off if China does well.”
Biden spoke in a part of the world that, in itself, Beijing might view as a provocation. Vietnam shares a border with China, and its leadership has chafed at Beijing’s incursions into the country’s territorial waters. Wary of China’s actions, Vietnam recalibrated its diplomatic ties, and on Sunday it raised the U.S. to the highest tier in its system, on par with China.
“Why on Earth would President Biden go to Vietnam other than it being about China?” said Matthew Turpin, who served as director for China in the National Security Council in the Trump White House.
Biden made the high-profile trip to Vietnam after he attended the G20 summit meeting in India, where he held private talks with his counterpart, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. India, too, has clashed with China in border disputes that have stoked tensions between the two nuclear-armed states.
Chinese President Xi Jinping chose to skip the summit of the world’s wealthy nations, the first he has missed in the 10 years he has held power. Seizing an opening, Biden used the summit to announce ambitious rail and shipping projects that could conceivably compete with the sort of infrastructure investments China has been making in various countries that it has drawn into its orbit.
Biden’s itinerary, stopping in two countries that border China, has unnerved Beijing. Mao Ning of China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the U.S. needs to “abandon the Cold War mentality and zero-sum-game mindset.”
Asked directly about that comment, Biden said at the news conference: “I think we think too much in terms of Cold War terms. It’s not about that. It’s about generating economic growth and stability in all parts of the world. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
As he manages the rivalry with China, Biden has framed his effort to expand partnerships with Asian countries as an attempt to help them prosper and raise living standards.
“It has nothing to do with hurting China or helping China,” Biden said. “It has to do with everything from climate change to making sure these countries can succeed economically and grow.”
Biden’s two-day stop in Vietnam exemplifies the perishability of global alliances. Not long ago in the sweep of history, a presidential visit to Hanoi would have been unimaginable. Saigon’s fall in 1975 ended a war that a succession of U.S. presidents fought in the erroneous belief that Ho Chi Minh’s takeover of the country would topple a crucial domino and thereby spread communism throughout the region.
A half-century later, America’s 46th president sat at a long table in Communist Party headquarters in Hanoi, under the gaze of Ho Chi Minh’s statue.
“Vietnam and the United States are critical partners at what I would argue is a very critical time,” Biden said in his opening remarks.
It seemed from General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s comments that he has been following America’s presidential race.
One of Biden’s political vulnerabilities is his age. At 80, he is the oldest president in U.S. history, and polling shows that many voters aren’t convinced he’s up to another four-year term. John Bolton, a national security adviser under Trump, said in an interview that when Biden meets with world leaders, “they probably want to, frankly, look him in the eye and see if he’s going to make it for five more years.”
Trọng was more charitable. In his opening remarks, he told Biden: “You have nary aged a day, and I would say you look even better than before.”
“Every feature of you, Mr. President, is very much complimentary of your image,” he added.
At that, Biden, who is happy to joke about his age, laughed.
CORRECTION (Sept. 12, 2023, 1:47 p.m. ET): This article misattributed a quote about Biden’s trip to Vietnam and India. It was from Matthew Turpin, former China director for the National Security Council in the Trump White House, not Matthew Pottinger, former deputy national security adviser in the Trump White House.