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HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — John Kerry first set foot in Vietnam 44 years ago, a young U.S. Navy officer fighting in a war that would come to profoundly influence his political career and foreign policy thinking.
He returned again Saturday, this time as America’s top diplomat, offering security assurances and working to promote democratic and economic reforms in the communist country.
In his 14th trip to the Southeast Asian nation since the war’s end, the U.S. secretary of state was trying to bolster the remarkable rapprochement that he had encouraged and helped to engineer as a senator in the 1990s.
“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.
Kerry last was in Vietnam 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 traveled 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.
On Sunday, he planned to go to the Mekong River delta region, where he 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 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 neighbors 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 defense 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.