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Politics chat: Biden tries to counter China's influence in Asia


President Joe Biden has had a busy couple of days in a part of the world where he is trying to strengthen partnerships. He was in India for the G20, and today he's in Vietnam, where he met with the country's leader, the head of Vietnam's Communist Party. Biden is highlighting the countries growing closer given their, quote, "bitter past."


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This trip has been a historic moment. Today, we can trace 50-year arc of progress in the relationship between our nations, from conflict to normalization.

RASCOE: NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid has been traveling with the president and joins us now from Hanoi. Hi, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So what else was said at this press conference in Hanoi? I know this trip is, like, really a big deal for the U.S. president.

KHALID: That's right. And I will say, Ayesha, coming into this, you probably heard some of my reporting on the year where I repeatedly said the subtext of this visit, both to Vietnam and earlier to India was about China and trying to create a balance to China in the Indo-Pacific region. You know, Biden was asked, actually, a question about trying to contain China, specifically in trying to improve relations with some of China's neighbors - Japan, South Korea, India, Vietnam. And he said this is not about trying to do that. It's about having a stable Asia-Pacific region.


BIDEN: And so really what this trip was about - it was less about containing China. I don't want to contain China. 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. And one of the ways you do that is you make sure that we are talking about the same things.

KHALID: Biden did point out multiple times that he wants to see China succeed economically, but he also wants to see them succeed by playing by the rules. He said that he is not seeking to decouple from China or to hurt China.

RASCOE: So what are the U.S. and Vietnam trying to get out of this closer relationship?

KHALID: You know, this is really quite significant, Ayesha, in major part because the U.S. and Vietnam only normalized relations in 1995. And what we saw here today was Vietnam elevated relations with the U.S. to the level of comprehensive strategic partner. Now, that's the highest level of any international partnership that Vietnam has with any country. They do not give this status level to many countries. In fact, one of the few other nations it does is with China. So, you know, I say that this move is significant in terms of how the Biden administration is trying to counter China's diplomatic and military heft in the region. You know, Vietnam has pushed back against some of China's policies in the region. And in Hanoi on Sunday, Biden met with the general secretary of Vietnam's Communist Party and called the two countries critical partners at a very critical time. You also heard the general secretary of the Communist Party say that the two countries' partnership had grown by, quote, "leaps and bounds."

RASCOE: So what else is on the agenda while Biden is in Hanoi?

KHALID: He'll also be meeting with Vietnam's prime minister and dropping in on a meeting of tech CEOs. He'll also be visiting a memorial for John McCain. I'm sure you recall that was the late Arizona Republican senator who was quite close friends with Joe Biden.

RASCOE: And, of course, Biden flew to Vietnam from India, where he attended the G20. How did the G20 go for Biden?

KHALID: You know, at the G20, Biden and his team were really trying to make the case that the G20, a group of really disparate countries, still is relevant. And the reason in part they were doing this is that you notably did not have two key leaders. Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping did not attend this meeting. And the U.S. was really trying to make the case that, no, the G20 summit is still a really important place to problem-solve on big economic issues. I will also say the subtext there was about China. You saw Biden join his fellow world leaders and roll out this ambitious infrastructure plan to connect India, the Middle East and Europe through a new rail and shipping corridor. And in many ways, it seems like that is an alternative to the massive Chinese infrastructure projects you've seen over the last decade. You also saw the president in India really court Narendra Modi, the country's prime minister. You know, both of these stops, India and Vietnam, do show the degree to which the White House seems to be overlooking some challenges around human rights issues or press freedoms because it sees both of these countries as vital strategic partners in the region.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Asma Khalid in Hanoi, Vietnam. Thank you so much.

KHALID: Great to speak with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.