DIPLOMACY

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s farewell visit to Vietnam is final act of administration’s Asia pivot

Trump, whose tirades against the costs of globalisation to American workers helped propel him to office, has vowed to scrap the TPP on his first day in charge

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 7:14pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 January, 2017, 10:02pm

US Secretary of State John Kerry began his farewell tour in Vietnam yesterday, the final act in current administration’s so-called Asia pivot before president-elect Donald Trump takes office next week.

Vietnam has been at the centre of outgoing President Barack Obama’s Asia embrace, marked by the lifting of a wartime-era arms embargo, major growth in trade and the signing of the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact.

I’m delighted
to be back in Vietnam where we are developing still a growing relationship
US Secretary of State John Kerry

Trump, whose tirades against the costs of globalisation to American workers helped propel him to office, has vowed to scrap the TPP on his first day in charge. But analysts say ties are unlikely to crumble despite uncertainty over the incoming leader’s Asia strategy.

Kerry’s visit to Vietnam, his fourth trip to the communist country as America’s top diplomat, is both political and deeply personal. The former naval officer won a Silver Star for his service during the Vietnam war after beaching his patrol boat and storming ashore to shoot dead a Viet Cong ambusher in Ca Mau province in 1969.

Kerry later came to see the war as a mistake and campaigned for peace after serving.

“I’m delighted to be back in Vietnam where we are developing still a growing relationship,” Kerry said during yesterday’s meeting with acting foreign minister Bui Thanh Son and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

“There have been a lot of steps forward but there are still some challenges,” he said, referring to Vietnam’s human rights record.

The relationship between the two countries has transformed since the painful and bloody war era. The United States is Vietnam’s top export market and trade between the pair has tripled in recent years, along with a major boost in US investments in the manufacturing hub.

Obama’s administration has made Asia – home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies – a priority as counterbalance to Chinese power.

“Kerry’s visit underscores the importance of Vietnam in the US-Asia policy,” Vietnam analyst Jonathan London said.

Vietnam eager to capitalise on opportunities presented by TPP but ban on trade unions may need to be scrapped as part of reforms

Trump’s tough talk on rebalancing global trade and vow to scrap the TPP has clouded the future of that policy. But “it would be premature to assume that he will totally scrap the interests of US firms that operate in East Asia”, London added.

Simmering tensions with Beijing over its military build-up on islands in the South China Sea will likely be discussed during Kerry’s visit. Vietnam is seeking diplomatic ballast in the face of increasingly aggressive actions by China.

Washington has remained neutral in overlapping disputes with China in the South China Sea, insisting freedom of navigation must be respected. But Trump’s nominee to replace Kerry, former oilman Rex Tillerson, this week warned of a “clear signal” to China to stop building on disputed islands.