HANOI — U.S. President Donald Trump told Vietnam on Sunday that he is prepared to mediate between nations with conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“If I could help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know,” Trump said during a meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang in Hanoi, referring to long-running territorial disputes exacerbated in recent years by China’s building of man-made islands with military installations in some areas.
“I know we’ve had a dispute for quite a while with China. If I can help in any way, I’m a very good mediator and a very good arbitrator,” the White House quoted Trump as saying.
Trump’s remarks came as he has increasingly shown confidence in building good personal ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with whom he had lengthy discussions in Beijing before arriving in Vietnam on Friday as part of a five-nation trip to Asia.
After attending an economic summit in the Vietnamese coastal city of Danang with Trump and about 20 other leaders from the Asia-Pacific region, Xi arrived in Hanoi on Sunday for a two-day state visit.
China chose Vietnam for Xi’s first official visit since he was re-elected as head of the Communist Party late last month.
Xi’s schedule through Monday includes meetings with Quang and Vietnam’s Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong.
Vietnam has become the most vocal opponent of China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea, potentially oil-rich waters that also serve as a vital shipping route. The Philippines has decided to engage in diplomacy with Beijing and focus less on territorial problems, in exchange for securing more economic benefits from the Asian powerhouse.
China has overlapping territorial claims also with Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan in the South China Sea. Rejecting U.S. and other third-party intervention in the disputes, China has repeated its preference to negotiate directly with smaller claimants in an attempt to overwhelm them with its economic might.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Trump after the meeting, Quang did not directly answer a journalist’s question as to how Vietnam would respond to his readiness to extend a helping hand.
“With regard to the South China Sea issue, I have shared my thoughts with President Donald Trump on the recent developments in this area,” Quang said.
But he also said that Vietnam seeks to settle the disputes through peaceful negotiations and with respect for diplomatic and legal process in accordance with international law, including the 1982 U.N. Convention on Law of the Sea.
China, however, has refused to comply with last year’s international tribunal ruling that invalidated its claims across almost the entire sea.
Regarding other matters, Trump hailed defense ties between the two countries “terrific” during his meeting with the Vietnamese president and added he appreciates Hanoi’s purchase of “very substantial military equipment” from Washington.
“It’s jobs for America, and you get the best equipment in the world,” Trump said. “Nobody makes it like we make it.”
Trump was in Vietnam on the fourth leg of trip to five Asian nations, after previous stops in Japan, South Korea and China. He arrived later Sunday in the Philippines for summit meetings related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.