- POSTED: 14 Dec 2013 18:58
- UPDATED: 14 Dec 2013 21:13
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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.
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 centre 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.
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.
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 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 long-standing US ally, where he will tour the devastated city of Tacloban which was hit by a typhoon last month, as well as meeting Filipino leaders in Manila.
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 Sea.
Kerry, a practising Catholic, attended a mass at the French-colonial era Notre Dame Cathedral.
US officials have recently hailed improvements in freedom of religion in the one-party state long criticised for harassing and jailing Catholic activists.