BANGKOK— U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Vietnam and the Philippines this week as part of a trip intended to further Washington's diplomatic, economic and military rebalancing toward Asia.
Kerry arrived in Vietnam at a time of heightened tensions with China as Beijing stakes an assertive stance on maritime territorial disputes with countries in the region.
During a news conference in Hanoi, Kerry criticized China for its new air defense zone over islands disputed with Japan in the East China Sea. He warned that Beijing should not consider taking similar unilateral actions elsewhere, including the South China Sea.
The secretary announced the U.S. would provide an additional $32 million to help countries in the region patrol territorial waters. The money includes some $18 million for Vietnam.
Kerry's visit comes as Washington tries to reassure its allies about its “Asia Pivot” strategy of rebalancing economic, diplomatic and military focus to a region considered key to the U.S. future. Carlyle Thayer, of the University of New South Wales in Australia said Secretary Kerry's trip is partly aimed at “rebalancing the rebalancing.”
"The rebalancing of the U.S. is always cast overwhelmingly on the military side, and the rebalancing of the rebalancing is to stress that the U.S. has enduring commitments to other forms of engagement with Southeast Asia and in the Mekong Delta. It comes together with sustainable development environmental protection and mitigation against climate change," said Thayer.
Secretary Kerry also toured the Mekong river, returning to a place where he was the commander of an American patrol boat during the Vietnam War.
He addressed a group of Vietnamese students living in communities with water-dependent economies about climate change, and announced a $17 million investment for Vietnam Forests and Deltas program, which is intended to mitigate climate change.
While the U.S. and Vietnam share economic and security goals, Washington has been critical of Hanoi's human rights record.
Despite making progress on its human rights agenda, including signing the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and allowing a special rapporteur for human rights in to the country, Vietnam has also cracked down on perceived government critics.
More journalists and bloggers were arrested in Vietnam this year than ever before.
Diplomats present at Secretary Kerry's meetings said he was forthright with top officials about the importance of human rights, mentioning specific cases. However, professor Thayer said pragmatic security and economic agendas take precedence over human rights in U.S. diplomacy with Vietnam.
"Durable progress lost out to a comprehensive partnership. The U.S. is willing to develop relations with Vietnam economically and on the military side while making the protests and telling the Vietnamese leaders its in your interest because countries that respect civil rights, respect political freedom will have political stability and economic growth and that will positively influence the direction of relations with the United States," noted Thayer.
Thayer said Vietnam's major irritant in its relationship with the U.S. is the International Trafficking and Arms Regulations, which bans Vietnam from buying certain military equipment such as night vision goggles and riot gear.
Kerry will next go to the Philippines, where he is to visit typhoon-devastated Tacloban, meet with top officials in Manila and discuss bilateral ties.