1 of 5 | Vietnam Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh speaks with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday at a government office in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/EPA-EFE
Aug. 25 (UPI) -- U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris met on Wednesday with the top two leaders of Vietnam, telling them that pressure is needed to force China to follow international laws in the South China Sea and prevent Beijing from bullying neighbors.
Harris, who spoke with the Vietnamese leaders on the second leg of her two-nation trip through Southeast Asia, again drove home the U.S. position concerning the communist giant, which in recent years has claimed nearly all of the South China Sea against the protests of regional governments like Vietnam.
The South China Sea is the region's most vital commercial waterway and a critical trade route for many Southeast Asian territories like China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
"We will work closely with Vietnam to uphold the rules-based international order, including freedom of navigation, an issue that we take seriously, and including as it relates to the South China Sea," Harris said Wednesday during a meeting with Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
"We need to find ways to pressure and raise the pressure, frankly, on Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and to challenge its bullying and excessive maritime claims."
Harris made similar remarks during her visit to Singapore on Tuesday.
Harris' trip to Vietnam was briefly delayed on Tuesday after security officials detected a health issue that resembled Havana Syndrome, a condition discovered a few years ago that resulted from "sonic attacks" against diplomatic personnel in the Cuban capital.
Harris' health was not affected and her arrival in Hanoi was delayed by about three hours, White House officials said.
On Wednesday, Beijing quickly pushed back against the vice president's remarks -- and pointed to the U.S. military withdrawal in Afghanistan to suggest that President Joe Biden's administration is merely paying "lip service" to Southeast Asian allies.
"What is happening in Afghanistan clearly demonstrates that the [United States'] so-called 'rules-based order' is a way to arbitrarily intervene militarily in a sovereign country without being held responsible for the suffering of its people," China's foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said, according to the state-run Global Times.
Harris held bilateral meetings with Phuc and Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh on Wednesday. She also took part in a "lease signing" for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi and said she supports Vietnam's request for a third former U.S. Coast Guard cutter in the region.
"The United States also wants to maintain our security cooperation," Harris added during her meeting with Phuc.
"And let me affirm that the United States Navy will maintain a strong presence in the South China Sea and will continue to challenge Beijing's bullying and excessive maritime claims."
The United States has a complex relationship with Vietnam due to the war that lasted for years in the 1960s and 1970s. Diplomatic relations with the Asian nation were restored in 1995 under the administration of former President Bill Clinton.