China’s embassy in Hanoi hit back at US Vice-President Kamala Harris’s criticism of Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea , accusing Washington of acting as the “black hand” behind the tensions in the disputed waters. The statement came as Harris wrapped up her first trip to Singapore and Vietnam on Thursday, with repeated pledges to help China’s neighbours push back against Beijing’s “bullying and excessive maritime claims”. “We welcome stiff competition, we do not seek conflict ,” she said in Hanoi on Thursday, the final day of her trip. “[But] we’re going to speak up when there are actions that Beijing takes that threaten the rules-based international order ... such as activity in the South China Sea.” Observers said the escalated war of words underlined Beijing’s wariness over US President Joe Biden ’s redoubled efforts to woo Southeast Asian countries, especially Vietnam, away from China. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin toured Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines a month ago in another bid to bolster engagement and security ties with the region. In a statement on its website, the Chinese embassy said the sole purpose of Harris’ visit was to “challenge and put pressure on China”, citing comments she made to Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc on Wednesday. Harris said the United States and its regional partners “need to find ways to” mount pressure on China, and offered to forge closer ties with Vietnam through maritime security cooperation, including more visits by American warships and aircraft carriers. She also offered vaccines and aid to tackle the coronavirus. “Obviously, what the United States really wants is not regional peace and stability, nor ‘freedom of navigation’, but the freedom for US warships to run wild in the South China Sea,” the embassy said. “The US is the real driving force behind the militarisation of the South China Sea and the real black hand in intimidation and bullying.” US VP Harris seeks strategic upgrade to Vietnam ties, calls for pressure against Beijing in South China Sea Over the past few days, Chinese officials and state-controlled media have stepped up rhetoric against Harris and the Biden administration, describing Washington’s charm offensives as meddling in regional affairs and attempting to drive a wedge between Beijing and its neighbours. “Southeast Asian countries will not play to the United States’ baton and will not hop onto the United States’ anti-China bandwagon,” the embassy said. The statement also took a swipe at the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, pointing to the historical parallels between the scenes in Kabul and the 1975 evacuation of Saigon, which has raised questions about American reliability in many parts of the world. “At a time when the world focused on the US’ panic ‘escape’ in Kabul, American politicians deliberately came to Vietnam to maliciously provoke China’s relations with neighbouring countries. Do they want to awaken the world’s memories of the ‘Saigon Moment’ 46 years ago?” the statement said. It went on to invoke bitter memories among the Vietnamese people of the traumatic war. “The world will never forget the war crimes the United States has committed against the people of Vietnam and other parts of the world,” it said. Noting that Chinese diplomatic missions had routinely issued similar sharp rebukes against the US in the recent months, Xu Liping, an expert on regional affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it showed Beijing was keen to be treated as an equal by Washington. “China is clearly aware of the implications of the visits by Harris and other US officials on regional politics and our priority is to prevent the South China Sea from standing in the way of friendly ties with Hanoi,” Xu said. The South China Sea dispute has long been the biggest obstacle in Beijing’s relations with Hanoi, with Vietnam rising to become the most vocal regional critic of China’s expansive claims. Vietnam says it will not side against China, as US’ Kamala Harris visits According to Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Vietnam’s strategic importance for the US was in the fact that Hanoi “has consistently resisted China’s intimidation in the South China Sea and built up a credible military deterrence to China”. But both Xu and Thayer also noted that the potential of possible geostrategic alignment between Washington and Hanoi should not be overestimated because of the differences in political values and systems of government. “Apart from the trauma of war, which remains a sensitive topic for both Vietnam and the US, the authorities in Hanoi are deeply concerned about Washington’s intention of instigating ‘peaceful evolution’,” Xu said. During a meeting with Chinese ambassador Xiong Bo just hours before Harris landed in Hanoi on Tuesday, Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh voiced concerns about “peaceful evolution” of hostile forces and their attempts to sow discord between the communist neighbours.