US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) talks with Vo Ban Tam, who was a member of the Viet Cong and took part in an attack on Kerry's Swift Boat in the Mekong River Delta on February 28, 1969. Photo: AFP / Alex Brandon
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left) talks with Vo Ban Tam, who was a member of the Viet Cong and took part in an attack on Kerry's Swift Boat in the Mekong River Delta on February 28, 1969. Photo: AFP / Alex Brandon

Asia watchers who hoped US Secretary of State John Kerry would clarify his potential successor’s inflammatory comments toward China – comments relating to the South China Sea – were left guessing by the diplomat’s speech in Vietnam marking his farewell swing through the region. On Friday, Kerry reiterated the outgoing Barack Obama administration’s diplomatic line that the US does not support one nation over another in the South China Sea disputes, a policy that could shift drastically under President-elect Donald Trump.

Two days earlier, in his Senate confirmation hearings to replace Kerry as Trump’s top envoy, former ExxonMobil chairman Rex Tillerson said the US must stop China from building more islands in the sea’s contested waters. Those remarks set off speculation that rather than stay neutral the US may side with and fortify Southeast Asian claimants in the escalating sea quarrels. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei all have competing claims in the strategic, and potentially fuel-rich, sea.

Kerry didn’t respond directly to Tillerson’s comments, saying only that the US does not “favor” any particular claimant while obliquely criticizing countries that throw their weight around in the maritime area. Kerry chose instead to laud Vietnam as a model of post-war reconciliation and assure its Communist Party leaders that there is still a bilateral economic way ahead without the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact that Obama initiated and Trump has vowed to scrap. TPP, whose 12 signatories account for 40% of global gross domestic product and 20% of world trade, notably excludes China.

International law “does not recognize spheres of influence, or the right of nations to impose their will on a smaller nation simply because they can, because they’re big,” Kerry said at the Ho Chi Minh University of Technology and Education. “We believe in all the countries in the region – whether big or small – and that they should refrain from provocative acts that add to tensions or might lead to further militarization of the area. And we oppose coercion or the threat of force by any state to assert its claims over another.”

With just days left of the Obama administration, Kerry also sought to convince skeptics that the US “rebalance” to Asia would survive the next presidency. For his final address in Southeast Asia, Kerry chose the country where he once fought as a soldier, in the Vietnam War. Perhaps no two war foes have become such fast friends as Hanoi and Washington, which Kerry said is “very important for people all over the world to understand.” Kerry took pride, in his speech, in holding up this transformation as a paramount model for reconciliation.

“It took a great cost of life and treasure on everybody’s side,” Kerry said of the war that ended in 1975. Kerry symbolically visited the site where he killed a man as a soldier during the war. “We have moved so far beyond that now. But I want you to know it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t automatic. It didn’t just happen. It happened through the hard work and the vision of a lot of people who believed in the possibility of peace.”

Watch: John Kerry speaks at the Vietnam War Summit in Austin, Texas, on April 27, 2016

Despite lingering disagreements on issues ranging from religion to labor rights, Vietnam remains one of the more welcoming access points for the US in Asia. At the same time, Washington is Hanoi’s best hope against hawks in Beijing who have resorted to increasingly assertive measures to push their claims in the South China Sea, a desired counterbalance that helps to justify the US’ presence in the region. Vietnam’s embrace contrasts with recent unfavorable developments, including the Philippines’ increasingly hostile posture towards the US, declining ties with military-run Thailand and Malaysia’s recent overtures to China.

Trump’s decision to scrap TPP has stoked skepticism about his incoming administration maintaining Obama’s ‘rebalance’ toward Asia, a policy that aimed, with mixed results, to counter China’s rising regional influence. Kerry implored Vietnam not to settle for any “quick deal” that would replace TPP but sacrifice good business practices. TPP would have required Vietnam to loosen many of its tight controls, including over the formation of independent labor unions, and enforce stronger environmental regulations. The EurAsia Group, a consultancy, had predicted Vietnamese exports would grow over the decade to 2025 by 28% under the pact, with apparel and footwear shipments projected to rise by 50% over the same period.

“There are countries that are willing to make a quick deal without insisting on high standards. And that may seem more convenient to a few people in the short run,” Kerry said, in apparent reference to China’s proposed 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which excludes the US “But I got to tell you something: embracing the standards I talked about a moment ago, about the environment, about workers, about better standards of working, about government that works for you, not against you, those things are still essential.”

Ha Nguyen is a pseudonym

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