HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday celebrated the 20th anniversary of normalized relations between the United States and Vietnam but said ties would not reach their full potential without improvements in the communist nation's human rights record.
Speaking in Hanoi, Kerry extolled the virtues of reconciling with former enemies and lauded the explosive growth in U.S.-Vietnamese trade, educational exchanges and security cooperation over the past two decades. Yet, he said concerns remained, notably over freedoms of press, speech and assembly, labor rights and political prisoners. While some progress has been made, more is needed, he said. He added that the U.S. is willing to help in those areas but that without significant positive steps, a U.S. ban on supplying lethal weaponry to Vietnam will remain in place.
"Progress on human rights and the rule of law will provide the foundation for a deeper and more sustainable strategy and strategic partnership between the United States and Vietnam," Kerry said in a speech to civic and business leaders at a Hanoi hotel. "Only you can decide the pace and the direction of the process of building this partnership. But I am sure you have noticed that America's closest partnerships in the world are with countries that share a commitment to certain values."
"The more we have in common, the easier it will be to convince our people to deepen the bonds and make the sacrifices on each other's behalf," Kerry said.
He later made similar comments at a news conference with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh who said his country was willing to have a dialogue about human rights and was trying to improve. Minh noted that judicial reforms are underway as is the repeal or amendment of controversial laws that many saw as violations of the provisions of the country's new constitution.
"Vietnam is more than willing to discuss differences on human rights so we can improve our policies and do a better job," Minh said. Vietnam wants the United States to become its No. 1 trading partner and No. 1 foreign investor, he added.
Despite the rights concerns, U.S. officials see stronger ties with Vietnam as a linchpin in President Barack Obama's Asia policy. Vietnam is among the Southeast Asian nations that have competing claims with China over areas of the South China Sea, and has sought U.S. support for negotiated resolutions to the disputes, including between Beijing and Hanoi.
Kerry came to Vietnam from a regional security forum in Malaysia where he and China's foreign minister clashed over who is to blame for the rising tensions. The U.S. and China's smaller neighbors like Vietnam are calling for a halt to massive Chinese land reclamation projects in the disputed areas over which Beijing claims sole sovereignty. Beijing rejects what calls outside interference from Washington.
To show solidarity with Vietnam, the Obama administration last year partially lifted a ban on arms sales to Vietnam, allowing the U.S. to supply Hanoi with Coast Guard craft and associated equipment. U.S. officials say Washington is exploring other ways to assist Vietnam in bolstering its maritime law enforcement capabilities short of supplying lethal assistance.
Kerry, a Vietnam veteran, was in Hanoi wrapping up a five-nation tour of the Middle East and Southeast Asia that has been dogged by domestic U.S. debate over the Iran nuclear deal. He said the Vietnam War was the result of a "most profound failure of diplomatic insight and political vision."
And he lamented that current discussions have often focused on the alleged necessity of conflict.
"Standing here today, I'm reminded of conversations I've had recently with people who talk almost casually about the prospect of war with one country or another. And I'm tempted to say: 'You don't have the first idea of what you're talking about'," Kerry said in his speech.
"For sure, there are times when one may have no choice but to go to war, but it is never something to rush to or accept without exploring every other available option," he said. "The war that took place here half a century ago divided each of our countries and stemmed from the most profound failure of diplomatic insight and political vision."
He did not mention Iran or the nuclear deal in his address. But he made clear that the American-Vietnamese transition from foes to friends should serve as a model for others.
"Vietnam and our shared journey from conflict to friendship crosses my mind frequently as I grapple with complex challenges we face today," he said. "That we are standing here today celebrating 20 years of normalized relations is proof that we are not doomed merely to repeat the mistakes we have made in the past. We have the ability to overcome great bitterness and to substitute trust for suspicion and replace enmity with respect."
"The United States and Vietnam have again proven that former adversaries really can become partners, even in the complex world we face today. And as much as that achievement matters to us, it is also a profound and timely lesson to the rest of the world," Kerry said.
Kerry's trip to Hanoi follows the first-ever visit to Washington last month of the head of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, who used the occasion to say that differences with the United States on human rights should not be allowed to obstruct the deepening of relations.