US Secretary of State John Kerry began his farewell tour in Vietnam Friday, giving a final push for Washington’s so-called Asia pivot before President-elect Donald Trump takes office next week.
Vietnam has been at the centre of outgoing President Barack Obama’s Asia embrace, marked by the lifting of a wartime-era arms embargo, major growth in trade and the signing of the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.
Trump, whose tirades against the costs of globalisation to American workers helped propel him to office, has vowed to scrap the TPP on his first day in charge. But analysts say ties are unlikely to crumble despite uncertainty over the incoming leader’s Asia strategy.
Kerry’s visit to Vietnam, his fourth trip to the communist country as America’s top diplomat, is both political and deeply personal. The former naval officer won a Silver Star for his service during the Vietnam War after beaching his patrol boat and storming ashore to shoot dead a Viet Cong ambusher in Ca Mau province in 1969.
Kerry later came to see the war as a mistake and after his return from combat campaigned for peace. “I’m delighted to be back in Vietnam where we are developing still a growing relationship,” Kerry said during a Friday meeting with acting foreign minister Bui Thanh Son and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.
“There have been a lot of steps forward but there are still some challenges as you know,” he said, after a reporter asked him about Vietnam’s patchy human rights record.
The communist country routinely jails dissidents and government critics. After official meetings in Hanoi, Kerry flies to Ho Chi Minh City later Friday. On Saturday he heads to the Bay Hap river in Ca Mau on Saturday to revisit the site of his 1969 ambush.
The relationship between the two countries has transformed since the painful and bloody war era. The United States is Vietnam’s top export market and trade between the pair has tripled in recent years, along with a major boost in US investments in the manufacturing hub.
Obama’s administration has made Asia — home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies — a priority as counterbalance to Chinese power. “Kerry’s visit underscores the importance of Vietnam in the US-Asia policy,” Netherlands-based Vietnam analyst Jonathan London told media.
Trump’s tough talk on rebalancing global trade and vow to scrap the TPP has clouded the future of that policy. But “it would be premature to assume that he will totally scrap the interests of US firms that operate in East Asia”, despite Trump’s rhetoric, London added. Simmering tensions with Beijing over its military build-up on islands in the South China Sea will likely be discussed during Kerry’s visit.
Vietnam is seeking diplomatic ballast in the face of increasingly aggressive actions by China in the strategically crucial waterway. Washington has remained neutral in overlapping disputes with China in the South China Sea, insisting that freedom of navigation must be respected in the oil-rich shipping route.
But Trump’s nominee to replace Kerry, former oilman Rex Tillerson, this week warned of a “clear signal” to China to stop building on disputed islands after the new president takes office on January 20. Kerry will head to Paris for a Middle East peace conference on Sunday, followed by a stop in London before heading to Davos for the World Economic Forum next week.