A U.S. envoy visits Hanoi days after Putin, saying US-Vietnam trust is at 'all-time high'

HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — A senior U.S. diplomat held talks in Vietnam on Saturday and said that the trust between the two countries was at an “all-time high,” just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin's state visit to Hanoi.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink insisted that his trip was unrelated to Putin's visit on Thursday. Vietnam had elevated the United States to its highest diplomatic status, comprehensive strategic partner, last year, putting it at the same level as China and Russia. The elevation of the U.S. ties suggested that Vietnam wanted to hedge its friendships as Western companies look to diversify their supply chains away from China.

Kritenbrink was speaking at a briefing for selected media in Hanoi. A recording of the interaction was reviewed by The Associated Press.

Putin's trip to Hanoi had triggered a sharp rebuke from the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, which said that “no country should give Putin a platform to promote his war of aggression and otherwise allow him to normalize his atrocities,” referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, now in its third year.

The American East Asia envoy echoed those concerns but said that he made it clear to Vietnamese officials that the “main reason” for his trip was the partnership between the U.S. and Vietnam. He met Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son.

“Only Vietnam can decide how best to safeguard its sovereignty and advance its interests,” he said, while stressing the economic relations between Vietnam and its largest export market, the U.S. Trade between the two countries was $111 billion in 2023 — compared to just $3.6 billion between Vietnam and Russia.

Russia remains important for Vietnam, not just because it is an old ally from the Cold War era, but also because it continues to be its biggest defense supplier and Russian oil exploration technologies help maintain Vietnam’s sovereignty claims in the contested South China Sea.

Kritenbrink said that China's increasingly assertive actions in pressing its claims to virtually the entire South China Sea were a cause of “great concern” for the region and the world.

The territorial disputes, which involve China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, have long been seen as an Asian flashpoint that could pit the U.S. against China if the high seas confrontations escalate into an armed conflict.

Vietnam said Friday that it was ready to hold talks with the Philippines to settle their overlapping claims to the undersea continental shelf in the South China Sea in a diplomatic approach that contrasts with China.

“We think that China’s actions, particularly its recent actions, around the Second Thomas Shoal, vis-à-vis the Philippines have been irresponsible, aggressive, dangerous, deeply destabilizing,” Kritenbrink said. He stressed that defense treaties between the U.S. and its ally the Philippines were “ironclad.”

The Philippines said Friday it has no plan to invoke its mutual defense treaty with the U.S. after the Chinese coast guard reportedly rammed, boarded and used machetes and axes to damage two Philippine navy boats in a chaotic faceoff that injured Filipino navy personnel.