HANOI, Vietnam: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with government officials in Vietnam on Thursday to discuss deepening security in response to a more militarily aggressive China.
At the same time, the Biden administration has said that human rights violations in Communist Vietnam could dampen U.S. enthusiasm for greater cooperation.
As Vietnam became the leader among countries in opposing Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, the U.S. has provided Vietnam with military assistance, including coastguard cutters.
Before his meeting in Hanoi, Austin noted that the United States would not ask Vietnam to choose between supporting China or the U.S.
"One of our central goals is ensuring that our allies and partners have the freedom and the space to chart their own futures," Austin said, as quoted by Reuters.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy sent a warship through the Taiwan Strait, which often angers Beijing.
"(Vietnam) wants to know that the U.S. is going to remain engaged militarily, it's going to continue its presence in the South China Sea," noted Greg Poling, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, according to Reuters.
Poling added that there was a limit to how fast and far the Vietnamese were comfortable with deepening ties.
Even as Vietnam has undertaken significant economic reforms and social change in recent decades, the Communist Party continues to control the nation's media and tolerates little dissent.
Earlier, Austin said the United States would continue to lead by projecting its values.
"We will discuss those values with our friends and allies everywhere we go and we don't make any bones about that," Austin said, as reported by Reuters.
While meeting with Austin on Thursday, Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc discussed the planned visit to Vietnam by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.