HO CHI MINH CITY – US Secretary of State John Kerry Saturday urged Vietnam, where he served during the war, to deepen economic reforms and respect human rights as he began a trip aimed at shoring up Southeast Asian ties.
Kerry, whose experiences during the Vietnam War inspired his political activism, hailed the relationship between the former enemies as “stronger than ever” on his first official visit to the nation as the top US diplomat.
“I can’t think of two countries that have worked harder, done more and done better to try and bring themselves together to change history, and change the future,” Kerry told students, businesspeople and reporters at an event in Ho Chi Minh City Saturday.
Washington is eager to underscore its commitment to Asia after its “pivot” policy was shaken earlier this year when the US government shutdown forced President Barack Obama to cancel a trip to the region, allowing China to occupy center stage at key regional summits.
The region is beset by political and territorial tensions, including bitter maritime disputes between an increasingly assertive Beijing and a number of its neighbours — among them Vietnam.
Kerry is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi to discuss deepening trade and security ties as part of his three-day visit.
On Saturday, Kerry hailed Vietnam’s “extraordinary” economic transformation since ties were normalised two decades ago, saying that bilateral trade had grown 50-fold since 1995.
Vietnam is on the “doorstep of another great transformation,” he said, as negotiators inch closer towards signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a vast trade agreement currently under negotiation.
“Vietnam has the potential to become one of the US’s leading economic partners in the region,” Kerry said.
The TPP could help Vietnam to “maintain the momentum” for market reforms, particularly of its notoriously inefficient state-owned companies.
One-party Vietnam has faced a barrage of criticism from activists over its record on human rights and crackdowns on freedom of expression and worship.
US lawmakers and New York-based Human Rights Watch have urged Kerry to use his visit to link progress on rights to Vietnam’s participation in the TPP.
“A commitment to an open internet, to a more open society… and to the protection of individual people’s human rights” is essential for growth and prosperity, he said.
“It strengthens a country, it doesn’t weaken it,” Kerry said, adding that the US urged Vietnam’s leaders to “protect those rights”.
On Sunday, Kerry is due to visit to the Mekong Delta, where he was a wartime Swift Boat skipper on the dangerous gunboat missions patrolling the rivers in the area.
Kerry served with the US Navy from 1966 to 1970 as a naval lieutenant. He was decorated with three Purple Hearts, awarded for any injury received during combat which requires medical treatment, a Bronze star and a Silver star.
Speaking to consulate staff in Ho Chi Minh City, he recounted some of his memories of the war, describing one evening he spent in what was then Saigon in 1969.
“I remember sitting up on the roof of the Rex Hotel, and none of these other tall buildings were here… And we would sit up there, and we were having a beer, which we couldn’t have normally where we were, and you’d look out at the flares all around the city.”
Every so often, he said, he could hear the “brrt” of gunfire from a C-130 known as “Puff the Magic Dragon”. “It was really eerie. I can’t tell you how totally bizarre it was to be sitting on top of a hotel, having a beer, sitting around, talking with people… while all around you, you would be seeing and hearing the sounds of a war. And that was the sort of strangeness and duality of that period of time.”
It was on his return after two tours of duty that he became a fierce campaigner against the war, which ended in 1975.
Kerry, who celebrated his 70th birthday on Wednesday, said he was excited to have returned to Vietnam, his first time back in the communist country since he joined president Bill Clinton on his landmark visit in 2000.
Kerry’s trip will also include a visit to the Philippines, a longstanding US ally, where he will tour the devastated city of Tacloban, which was hit by a typhoon last month.
It is a chance to “tighten the slack” left by Obama’s absence at the APEC forum in Bali this year, said Jonathan London of the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong.
“Kerry’s visit is an opportunity for (Vietnam and the US) to more clearly define ways forward in the context of an East Asian diplomatic scene that has been destabilised by China’s increasing aggressive regional posture,” he told AFP.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have their own disputes with China over territory in the South China Sea, while Beijing has also locked horns with Tokyo over areas in the East China Sea.
Kerry, a practising Catholic, attended a mass at the French-colonial era Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City.
US officials have recently hailed improvements in freedom of religion in the one-party state long criticised for harassing and jailing Catholic activists.