U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will emphasize the American presence in Southeast Asia in visits to Vietnam and the Philippines after President Barack Obama’s absence from a summit in October ceded the spotlight to China.
Obama skipped the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Brunei because of the partial U.S. government shutdown at the time. His absence raised questions in the region about America’s promised strategic re-balancing toward the Asia-Pacific even as China exerts expanding influence in the region.
“The U.S. is trying to overcome the fallout from the no-show in Brunei,” Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra, said in a phone interview. “In terms of re-balancing, Vietnam is a major strategic player in Southeast Asia.”
Kerry’s visit, which started today in Ho Chi Minh City, comes after China declared a new air-defense zone in the East China Sea that’s increased tensions with Japan and South Korea. His itinerary of public appearances emphasizes non-military U.S. ties to the region.
In the Philippines, Kerry will underscore U.S. efforts to provide relief after last month’s devastating typhoon Haiyan, including dispatching an aircraft carrier. He’s planning to make a side trip to Tacloban, a city in the area that was hit hardest.
Kerry is making his first trip to Vietnam as America’s top diplomat. It’s an event viewed in the country as symbolic of the two nations putting their past behind them: A decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, Kerry became an activist against it after returning home and later, as a senator, pushed to normalize relations between the two countries in the mid-1990s.
“Obviously I am a little older and grayer since I first landed in Vietnam as a newly minted young naval officer,” Kerry, 70, said in a video greeting posted this week on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. “But I can still close my eyes and I can remember the country I saw then during the war.”
This is Kerry’s fourth visit to Asia as the U.S. secretary of state. The trip is intended to demonstrate America’s commitment to the region, a State Department official told reporters traveling with Kerry, speaking on condition he not be named because of diplomatic protocol.
Today, Kerry observed the signing of a $94 million deal to provide 52 wind turbines in the southern province of Bac Lieu between General Electric and Cong Ly Construction, Tourism and Trading Company. In a speech at the American Center, Kerry pressed Vietnam to commit to an Internet free of censorship and the protection of human rights, principles that will ultimately lead to a “thriving economy,” he said.
Tomorrow, Kerry will travel to the Mekong Delta, where he served during the war, to talk about cooperation on climate change and environmental protection. Kerry goes to Hanoi Monday for meetings with Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and other officials. He will travel to Manila on Tuesday.
“Vietnam wants to get closer, not only to the U.S., but to the EU, to Japan, to other big powers to balance their relationship with China,” Michael Michalak, a former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, said in a phone interview. “They see us as a source of technology, a source of security. They see their future as not being linked to the United States but the United States playing a very big role in it.”
The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is certain to be among the top issues discussed by Kerry and Vietnamese government officials, said Virginia Foote, chief executive officer of Bay Global Strategies LLC, an advisory firm based in Hanoi. While the Obama administration sought to complete the treaty linking 12 countries by the end of this year, negotiators said this week that they would miss that deadline.
Vietnam wants high U.S. tariffs on apparel and footwear exports reduced, said Foote, president and co-founder of the U.S. Vietnam Trade Council in Washington and Hanoi.
“TPP would be such a huge boost for Vietnam’s reputation globally,” she said. “For Vietnam to be a part of that elite club would be fantastic.”
In October, the U.S. agreed to sell civilian nuclear fuel and technology to Vietnam. In July, Obama announced a “comprehensive partnership” during a visit to the White House by President Truong Tan Sang. It highlights agreements between American oil companies and Vietnam that could lead to explorations in contested territorial waters in the South China Sea.
Two-way trade between the U.S. and Vietnam has grown from about $1 billion before a bilateral trade agreement in December 2001 to $26 billion for 2012, according to the U.S.
While there’s a “certain level of suspicion toward the U.S.” within Vietnam’s leadership, it aggressively pursues high-level American visits, said Le Hong Hiep, a lecturer at National University in Ho Chi Minh City. A visit by Obama, perhaps next year, “would again show that the U.S. views the communist leaders in Hanoi as legitimate and relevant partners in the region.”
Kerry’s visit to Vietnam underscores that Vietnam’s stepped-up arrests of bloggers and government protesters aren’t preventing the Obama administration from pursuing closer ties with the communist country, Thayer said. “It doesn’t look like Vietnam is being punished for it.”
Vietnam has imprisoned 62 bloggers and activists on charges of violating national security laws so far this year, according to Human Rights Watch. In 2012, there were 40 such cases in Vietnam that Human Rights Watch could confirm, the advocacy group said.
Competition for oil, gas and fish has led to clashes in the contested waters, which Vietnam calls the Eastern Sea. In March, China fired on a Vietnamese fishing vessel, and Chinese patrol ships have disrupted hydrocarbon surveys by the Philippines and Vietnam. Dung warned at a Singapore forum in late May that miscalculations over territorial disputes could disrupt “huge” trade flows and have global consequences.
China’s growing military muscle is certain to be discussed, Thayer said.
“China should understand that its increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea would only benefit the U.S. by pushing Vietnam further away from Beijing into Washington’s arms, though this is not what Vietnam really wants,” Hiep said. “There’s no doubt that China would feel uncomfortable with a closer relationship between Vietnam and the U.S.”
The U.S. and Vietnam will be careful not to portray deepening relationships as a way to contain China, said Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, director of Asia-Pacific programs at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
“Hanoi plays a very sophisticated game with Beijing,” she said in an e-mail. “It enjoys strong party-to-party links with China and has managed to stay out of the cross-hairs that Beijing has set on the Philippines and Japan.”
— With assistance by John Boudreau