HO CHI MINH CITY, Dec 14, 2013 (AFP) – US Secretary of State John Kerry Saturday attended mass at a cathedral in Vietnam, where he served during the war, in a trip aimed at shoring up Southeast Asian ties amid myriad regional tensions.
Kerry, a practicing Catholic whose experiences during the Vietnam War inspired his political activism, visited the French-colonial era Notre Dame Cathedral in southern Ho Chi Minh City as he began his first official visit to the nation as the top US diplomat.
Washington is eager to underscore its commitment to Asia after its “pivot” policy was shaken earlier this year when the US government shutdown forced President Barak Obama to cancel a trip to the region, allowing China to occupy centre stage at key regional summits.
The region is beset by political and territorial tensions, including bitter maritime disputes between an increasingly assertive Beijing and a number of its neighbours — among them Vietnam — that have raised concerns a minor incident in contested waters could escalate rapidly.
Kerry is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh in Hanoi as part of his three-day visit, and is expected to highlight growing security and trade ties between Washington and Hanoi, which normalised relations two decades ago.
He is also due to visit to the Mekong Delta where he was a wartime Swift Boat skipper on the dangerous gunboat missions patrolling the rivers in the area.
Kerry served with the US Navy from 1966 to 1970 as a naval lieutenant. He was decorated with three Purple Hearts, awarded for any injury received during combat which requires medical treatment, a Bronze star and a Silver star.
It was on his return after two tours of duty that Kerry became a fierce campaigner against the war, which ended in 1975.
Kerry, who celebrated his 70th birthday on Wednesday, has voiced excitement over his trip, saying he has not gone to Vietnam since he joined president Bill Clinton on his landmark visit in 2000.
Washington has sought to bolster its footprint in Asia as part of efforts to balance the growing might of China in the region.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have their own disputes with China over territory in the South China Sea, while Beijing has also locked horns with Tokyo over areas in the East Sea.
Kerry’s trip will also include a visit to the Philippines, a longstanding US ally, where he will tour the devastated city of Tacloban which was hit by a typhoon last month, as well as meeting Filipino leaders in Manila.
It is a chance to “tighten the slack” left by Obama’s absence at the APEC forum in Bali this year, said Jonathan London of the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong.
“Kerry’s visit is an opportunity for (Vietnam and the US) to more clearly define ways forward in the context of an East Asian diplomatic scene that has been destabilised by China’s increasing aggressive regional posture,” he told AFP.
US lawmakers and New York-based Human Rights Watch have urged Kerry to press authoritarian Vietnam on human rights, saying he should link progress its participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a vast trade agreement currently under negotiation.
Kerry’s cathedral visit comes as Vietnam has faced criticised for harassing and jailing Catholic activists, but US officials have recently hailed improvements in freedom of religion in the one-party state.