HANOI, Vietnam -- President Joe Biden said Sunday that his visit to Vietnam to showcase stronger ties with Hanoi was not about trying to start a "cold war" with China, but rather was part of a broader effort to provide global stability by building U.S. relationships throughout Asia at a time of tensions with Beijing.
At a late-night news conference, Biden sought to emphasize that despite bolstering America's alliance with Vietnam, Japan, South Korea and other countries on China's periphery, he was not seeking to "isolate" or "hurt" Beijing.
"Really, what this trip was about -- it was less about containing China. I don't want to contain China," he said. "I just want to make sure we have a relationship with China that is on the up and up, squared away.
"I want to see China succeed economically," Biden added. "But I want them to succeed by the rules."
The American president came to Hanoi as Vietnam was elevating the United States to its highest diplomatic status, a comprehensive strategic partner. That is evidence of how far the relationship has evolved from what Biden referred to as the "bitter past" of the Vietnam War.
The expanded partnership reflects a broader effort across Asia to counter China's influence. Biden has said Vietnam wants to flex a degree of independence, and U.S. companies are seeking an alternative to imports from Chinese factories. He is pursuing possible allies while also trying to soothe tensions with China.
"I think we think too much in ... Cold War terms," Biden said at his news conference. "It's not about that. It's about generating economic growth and stability in all parts of the world. And that's what we're trying to do."
He added: "We have an opportunity to strengthen alliances around the world to maintain stability. That's what this trip is all about."
Biden opened his news conference by saying he had "traveled around the world in five days," from Washington to New Delhi and now Hanoi, showcasing efforts by his administration to forge alliances. The president will stop in Alaska on the way home today to commemorate the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
In response to one question, Biden told reporters he had met with Chinese Premier Li Qiang while in India. The contact is the highest-level interaction between U.S. and Chinese officials since Biden and China's president, Xi Jinping, held talks at last year's G20 in Indonesia. Xi skipped the India talks and sent Li in his place.
"We talked about stability. ... It wasn't confrontational at all," Biden said.
The exchange, between G20 sessions Saturday, was brief, according to a senior Biden administration official. It was not clear who approached whom, but Biden was interested in seeing Li and underscoring his desire to stabilize the up-and-down relationship between the two countries, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Biden went into meetings with Vietnam's leaders after his arrival in the country. He welcomed the new partnership and said he hoped for progress on climate, the economy and other issues during his 24-hour stop in Hanoi.
"We can trace a 50-year arc of progress between our nations from conflict to normalization to this new elevated status," Biden said with Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, at party headquarters.
Biden has described himself as being part of the "Vietnam generation" although he did not serve in a war. He was exempted from military service because he had asthma as a teenager.
Biden called Vietnam "a friend, a reliable partner and a responsible member of the international community." He noted that veterans such as John Kerry, his climate czar, and the late John McCain, a Vietnam prisoner of war and Republican senator from Arizona, found ways to build a relationship with Vietnam after the war.
"Both men saw so clearly, as I and so many others did, how much we had to gain by working together to overcome a bitter past," he said.
Kerry is expected to join Biden today for a visit to the site where McCain was held as a POW.
Trong pledged that his country will work hard to implement the agreement. "Only then can we say it is a success," he said.
Biden described the U.S. and Vietnam as "critical partners at what I would argue is a very critical time." Neither leader specifically discussed how China's economic and geopolitical rise had contributed to their countries' expanded partnership, yet it was hard to explain the mutual embrace without Beijing's growing influence.
Vietnam previously bestowed the same level of relations on China and Russia. Elevating the U.S. suggests that Vietnam wants to hedge its friendships as U.S. and European companies look for alternatives to Chinese factories.
Emerging from their meeting, Trong said the U.S.-Vietnam partnership had grown by "leaps and bounds" and that it was "elevated to a new height." He proclaimed that his country was "a friend, a reliable partner and a responsible member of the international community."
"Vietnam will continue to strengthen its ties to the U.S. and other international partners in the spirit of Ho Chi Minh after Vietnam achieved its independence," he said.
With China's economic slowdown and Xi's consolidation of political power, Biden sees an opportunity to bring more nations, including Vietnam and Cambodia, into America's orbit.
Biden's visit underlies the priority he has put on assembling an alliance to push back against China economically, diplomatically and militarily. Human rights groups have condemned the Communist Party of Vietnam for its treatment of citizens, estimating that the government currently has about 200 political prisoners.
The State Department has previously acknowledged credible reports of the government imprisoning, torturing and killing activists under a corrupt judiciary that has invaded privacy and restricted freedom of the press, religion and assembly.
After their meeting, Trong said it was important to not interfere in domestic affairs, while Biden said, "I also raised human rights as a priority for both my administration and the American people."
Responding to a shouted question about whether human rights were a part of his conversations here, he stopped and said, "I raised it with every person I met."
Biden was welcomed upon his arrival in Vietnam with a pomp-filled ceremony outside the mustard-colored Presidential Palace. Schoolchildren lined the steps and waved American and Vietnam flags. Biden watched from an elevated review stand as high-stepping members of the military marched past.
Biden and Trong expressed happiness over seeing each other again after last meeting eight years ago in Washington. Biden was vice president at that time.
Trong had some flattering words for Biden, who is running for reelection next year and faces persistent questions at home about his age.
"You have nary aged a day, and I would say you look even better than before," Trong said. "I would say every feature of you, Mr. President, is complimenting your image." Biden chuckled at that.
But the packed schedule and jet lag appeared to take a toll on the 80-year-old president, who wrapped up his news conference saying, "I'm going to go to bed."
Jon Finer, Biden's principal deputy national security adviser, addressed reports that Vietnam was pursuing a deal to buy weapons from Russia, even as Hanoi is seeking stronger relations with the U.S. Finer acknowledged Vietnam's lengthy military relationship with Russia. He said the U.S. continues to work with Vietnam and other countries that have similar ties to Russia to try to limit their interactions with Moscow, which Washington accuses of committing war crimes and violating international law with its aggression in Ukraine.
U.S. trade with Vietnam has already accelerated but there are limits to how much further it can grow without improvements to the country's infrastructure, its workers' skills and its governance. Nor has increased trade automatically put the Vietnamese economy on an upward trajectory.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said the CEOs she talks with rank Vietnam highly as a place to diversify supply chains that, before the coronavirus pandemic, had been overly dependent on China.
Information for this article was contributed by Josh Boak, Aamer Madhani and Darlene Superville of The Associated Press and by Matt Viser and Meryl Kornfield of The Washington Post.