US Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday hailed the “remarkable transformation” of relations with Vietnam 20 years after ties were established, but warned that Hanoi’s poor rights record stood in the way of deeper bonds between the former wartime foes.
Kerry, on the last leg of a trip through the Middle East and Asia, is in Hanoi to mark the diplomatic milestone with the communist nation and hold talks on trade, human rights and regional security — including maritime issues in the contested South China Sea.
Kerry met Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang early yesterday at the Presidential Palace, shaking hands with the official in front of a giant bust of Vietnamese independence hero Ho Chi Minh.
The two nations “have again proven that former adversaries really can become partners,” Kerry said in a speech.
However, progress on human rights is essential for “a deeper and more sustainable” partnership between the countries, which fought a bitter decades-long war which ended in 1975.
“Only you can decide the pace and direction of this progress, but I’m sure you’ve noticed that America’s closest partnerships in the world are with countries that share a commitment to certain values,” Kerry added.
From an eight-fold increase in US visitors to Vietnam, to a 20-fold rise in the number of Vietnamese students studying in the US, the former enemies have come a long way in 20 years, he said.
Bilateral trade has surged from about US$450 million in 1995 to more than US$36 billion, even as the two countries work toward concluding the ambitious US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.
“These aren’t just statistics. They’re a measure of one of the most remarkable transformations in the history of world affairs,” the US’ top diplomat said.
However, he cautioned that Vietnam needs to improve its rights record.
“Millions of people in Vietnam are already freely expressing themselves on Facebook,” Kerry said, adding that protecting free speech would “strengthen social cohesion and stability.”
The one-time presidential hopeful has said his political activism was inspired by his experiences patrolling waterways in the Mekong Delta on Swift Boats during the Vietnam War.
He served with the US Navy from 1966 to 1970 as a naval lieutenant and it was on his return after two tours of duty that he became a fierce campaigner against the war, which ended in 1975.
Kerry was to hold talks later yesterday with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, covering regional security and economic ties — including the TPP.
Workers’ rights issues — Vietnam does not allow independent trade unions have been a sticking point in the ongoing trade negotiations, which also include Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and other Pacific Rim countries, but not China.
Hanoi is also locked in a longstanding territorial dispute with Beijing over island chains in the South China Sea.
Kerry said that resolution of disputes in the South China Sea “should depend on who has the better argument not who has the bigger army,” and urged all parties to refrain from “provocative acts” in the contested waters.
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