HANOI, Vietnam — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, is in the communist nation's capital to mark the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Washington and Hanoi as he wraps up a five-nation tour of the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Kerry arrived Thursday after stops in Egypt, Qatar, Singapore and Malaysia, and planned meetings with Vietnamese officials Friday as well as a speech on U.S.-Vietnamese relations. Despite the resumption of ties and a surge in U.S.-Vietnam trade, education and cultural exchanges, the U.S. remains concerned about Vietnam's human rights record. American officials said Kerry would raise that issue and urge improvement.
In addition, the officials said Kerry will encourage Vietnam on implementation of a Pacific Rim trade pact and reiterate the U.S. commitment to helping the country protect and patrol its territorial waters. 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. But U.S. officials said it was unlikely that the easing would expand until Vietnam made significant progress on human rights.
But officials said Washington was exploring other ways to assist Vietnam in bolstering its maritime law enforcement capabilities and ensuring its territorial waters and fishing grounds are safe and secure.
Vietnam is among the Southeast Asian nations with competing claims with China over areas of the South China Sea, and has sought U.S. support for negotiated resolutions to the disputes.
Kerry came to Vietnam from a regional security forum in Malaysia where he and China's foreign minister clashed over who was to blame for rising tensions in the South China Sea, home to some of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes. The U.S. and China's smaller neighbors are calling for a halt to massive Chinese land reclamation projects in the disputed areas over which Beijing claims sole sovereignty.
U.S. officials said that during the Vietnam stop, Kerry was interested in discussing progress being made toward opening the Fulbright University, which would be the first independent higher education institution in the country.
Kerry's trip to Hanoi follows the first-ever visit to Washington last month of the head of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party, 40 years after the end of the Vietnam War and two decades after the restoration of diplomatic ties.
Nguyen Phu Trong, the one-party state's de facto leader, used the occasion to say that differences with the United States on human rights should not be allowed to obstruct the deepening of relations between the former enemies.
U.S. officials see stronger ties with Vietnam as a linchpin in President Obama's Asia policy. But human rights have remained a sore point even as American officials acknowledge that Vietnam's prosecution of dissidents has decreased. According to the State Department, Vietnam was holding about 125 political prisoners at the end of 2014.