Kerry makes final appeal to Vietnam

John Kerry chose Vietnam as one of the destinations for his final visit. Photo courtesy AP.

A tepid appeal for human rights, and an attempt to reassure Vietnam about the impending Trump administration, have marked a farewell visit to the country by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry.

Mr Kerry has played an important role in the process of reconciliation between Hanoi and Washington, and oversaw a significant warming of ties during his final year in office.

However, attempts by the United States to encourage more respect for human rights have increasingly fallen on deaf ears.

“The right of individuals to speak their mind, to worship, to travel, to acquire and share knowledge and information, and to take part in the decisions that affect their lives, we think that’s an inalienable right,” said Mr Kerry to an audience in Ho Chi Minh City.

US officials have continued to make similar statements over the last year with little discernible impact on Vietnam, which has stepped up repression of independent bloggers, human rights activists and other government critics.

Communist party officials appear to have concluded that Washington has sidelined support for democracy activists, as it seeks closer economic ties and strategic ties with Hanoi to counter the China threat.

Vietnam’s release of a Catholic church activist, Dang Xuan Dieu, on the eve of Mr Kerry’s visit, may be seen as a grudging gesture to appease criticism, but no-one is expecting a broader easing of repression.

Mr Dieu was sent into exile in France after suffering more than five years of abuse and ill health in a prison camp. He was convicted in 2013 of subversive activities for his work on press freedom.

Mending fences with Beijing

Relations between the United States and Vietnam are now at a crossroads.

Vietnam’s Communist party chief, Nguyen Phu Trong, is currently in Beijing mending fences with his communist comrades, amid fears about the likely impact of the Trump presidency.

Mr Kerry’s efforts to reassure officials in Vietnam cannot be expected to carry much weight at a time of such uncertainty.

“I’ve returned to Vietnam now to emphasise the shift in administrations in Washington is not going to alter or fundamentally undermine the commitment of the United States to the stability and the prosperity of the Asia-Pacific,” he said.

“Our friendship doesn’t depend on individuals or personalities, one president or the other, one party or the other.”

Mr Kerry acknowledged, however, that the centrepiece of the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, was “uncertain”.

Mr Trump has pledged to kill the trade pact during his first days in office. There are also indications that he could seek confrontation with China – over trade, the South China Sea and Taiwan – in a move that would be deeply destabilising for the region.