CA MAU, Vietnam – John Kerry returned Sunday to the winding waterways of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region where he once patrolled on a naval gunboat in the search for communist insurgents.
But nearly 50 years later, Kerry was promoting sustainable aquaculture and trade in a rapidly expanding economy rather than hunting Viet Cong guerrillas at the height of the Vietnam War. This was Kerry’s first visit back to the Delta since the war.
On this tour, the secretary of state was clad in long, drab olive cargo pants, a blue-and-white plaid long-sleeved shirt and sunglasses instead of the uniform he wore as a Navy officer in 1968 and 1969. In a new role, Kerry was revisiting the Delta’s rivers that made a vivid impression on him as a young lieutenant.
“”I can still close my eyes and I can remember the country that I saw then during the war: the site of water buffalos, incredible narrow rivers, the mangrove, the fishermen and their wooden boats,” Kerry said in a video posted to the website of the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi promoting his first trip to Vietnam as America’s top diplomat.
“The Mekong Region faces enormous challenges, we must protect and preserve this fragile ecosystem,” he said, underscoring the differences in mission now and then.
Kerry first set foot in Vietnam 44 years ago, as a U.S. Navy officer who volunteered for service because, as he has said, “it was the right thing to do.”
Kerry was decorated with three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for fighting in a conflict that he came to despise and call a “colossal mistake” and one that profoundly influenced his political career and strategic view.
“When I came home after two tours of duty, I decided that the same sense of service demanded something more of me,” he wrote in in his 2003 book “A Call to Service” as he was unsuccessfully campaigning for the presidency. “This led me to protest the very war in which I had fought.”
“The lesson I learned from Vietnam is that you quickly get into trouble if you let foreign policy or national security policy get too far adrift from our values as a country and as a people.”
He arrived back on Saturday for his 14th trip to the country since the war’s end but his first in 13 years, determined to bolster the remarkable rapprochement that he had encouraged and helped engineer as a senator in the 1990s. He is offering security assurances and working to promote democratic and economic reforms in the communist country.
“I can’t think of two countries that have worked harder, done more and done better to try to bring themselves together and change history, to change the future, to provide a future for people that is very, very different,” Kerry told a group of businesspeople, students and others at the U.S. Consulate’s American Center in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday.
Kerry last visit to Vietnam was in 2000, when Bill Clinton became the first American president to visit since the end of the war in 1975 and the start of the U.S. embargo against the former French colony.
Between 1991 and 2000, Kerry travelled 13 times to Vietnam to try to normalize relations, beginning with visits to clear up lingering questions over the fate of American prisoners of war and those listed as missing in action.
In the city he first knew as Saigon, the capital of the former South Vietnam, Kerry met Saturday with members of the business community and entrepreneurs to talk up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a broad trade agreement that the U.S. is now negotiating with Vietnam and nine other Asian countries.
To take full advantage of the deal’s economic opportunities, Kerry said Vietnam, which has been widely criticized for its human rights record, must embrace changes.
“A commitment to an open Internet, to a more open society, to the rights of people to be able to exchange their ideas, to high-quality education, to a business environment that supports innovative companies and to the protection of individual people’s human rights and their ability to be able to join together and express their ideas, all of these things create a more vibrant and a more powerful economy, as well as a society,” Kerry said.
“It strengthens a country, it doesn’t weaken it,” Kerry said. “The United States urges leaders here to embrace that possibility and to protect those rights.”
He made the comments after attending Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the 1880s and 1890s under French colonial rule, in a bid to show support for the tenuous freedom of worship in Vietnam. Vietnamese authorities have been criticized for harassing, prosecuting and jailing Catholic clergy.
In the Mekong River delta region he visited Sunday, Kerry had commanded a swift patrol boat in 1968 and 1969. Kerry’s schedule included a riverboat cruise along waters that were his old haunts. He intended to inspect agriculture projects that are a mainstay of southern Vietnam’s economy and assess the impact of upstream development and climate change.
In later talks with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi, Kerry was expected to make the case that respect for human rights, particularly freedom of speech and religion, is essential to improved relations with the United States. He also was expected to raise the issue of political prisoners whom the United States would like to see released.
The chief focus of the discussions, however, was expected to be maritime security and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Vietnam and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are deeply concerned about China’s growing assertiveness. They are looking to the United States to serve as a counterbalance by stepping up its traditional role as a guarantor of security in the Asia-Pacific.
The Obama administration has pledged to do so as part of its self-described “pivot to Asia,” with calls for a binding code of conduct on the high seas to ease tensions between China and its smaller neighbours over disputed territory.
China has reacted angrily to the U.S. approach. Earlier this month, over strenuous objections from Washington, Beijing announced a new air defence zone over parts of the East China Sea, where it has competing claims with Japan. Chinese officials have since said they might declare a similar zone in the South China Sea.
From Vietnam, Kerry will travel to the Philippines, which has its own maritime disputes with China.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.