Kerry Visits Vietnam and the Philippines

  • John Kerry lays a wreath at a cemetery outside Manila.
    Dec 19, 2013

    Secretary of State John Kerry flew from the Middle East to Southeast Asia this week for visits to Vietnam on December 14-16 and the Philippines on December 17-18. The trip was the latest effort to repair the damage from President Barack Obama’s cancelled trip to the region in October, due to the partial government shutdown in Washington. Like Kerry’s last trip in October, he sought to assuage persistent concern that the administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is stalling amid repeated crises at home and in the Middle East.

    It also comes on the heels of two contrasting actions from China. The first was the regional tours by President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, during which they announced lavish new assistance and investments in Southeast Asia. The second was China’s recent announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, which has Southeast Asia worried that Beijing’s new good neighbor policy will be short-lived and the South China Sea will be next.

    Q1: What were the most important outcomes of Kerry’s visit to Vietnam?

    A1: Kerry’s visit focused on trade and economic engagement, defense and non-traditional security cooperation, the environment, and education. Taken together, the deliverables highlight the increasingly comprehensive nature of U.S.-Vietnam cooperation.  

    On trade, both sides reiterated their support for quickly concluding negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Kerry reassured Hanoi of U.S. commitment to the trade agreement by announcing an initial package of $4.2 million designed to help Vietnam implement the TPP once it is concluded. Weeks before Kerry’s trip, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman visited Vietnam for in-depth discussions on TPP-related issues.

    Kerry also announced that the United States would provide $32.5 million for maritime capacity building among Southeast Asian nations, of which $18 million has been earmarked for Vietnam. The United States will also provide Vietnam five fast patrol boats for its coast guard. U.S. forces will begin training Vietnamese personnel in maritime domain awareness, search and rescue, and disaster response. During his trip to the Mekong Delta, Kerry stressed continuing U.S. support for Vietnam’s fight against the impact of climate change in the lower Mekong region through initiatives spearheaded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Import-Export Bank, and investment from U.S. companies.

    In Ho Chi Minh City, Kerry met with a group of alumni and faculty of the Fulbright Program in Vietnam, which he helped found as a senator. The Vietnam program is currently the second-largest Fulbright program in the world, and Kerry said the United States hopes to work with the government to turn it into the first full-fledged U.S.-style university. 

    Q2: What is the significance of Kerry’s trip to the recently launched U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership?

    A2: When President Obama and his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang launched the comprehensive partnership in July, it was received with skepticism in some quarters. But robust efforts at cooperation have since emerged in almost every area, and Kerry’s trip highlighted the expected development of the partnership’s various pillars.

    Not every aspect of the partnership will proceed quickly. U.S. exports to Vietnam are on track to double in the next five years, and common interests on trade and investment issues will help drive the relationship.

    Bilateral defense ties will also accelerate with a focus on maritime security cooperation, but they will not be the main driver of the partnership. Shared interests in regional stability, non-traditional threats, and maritime security, especially in the South China Sea, will ensure frequent high-level exchanges between defense officials and joint capacity building efforts. But the U.S. ban on the sale of lethal weapons to Vietnam due to human rights concerns is unlikely to be lifted in the short term, making some in the Vietnamese military hesitant to endorse a closer relationship with Washington.

    Human rights is becoming a mainstay in discussions between U.S. and Vietnamese officials, and Kerry raised it bluntly with his counterparts. As part of the comprehensive partnership, the U.S. secretary of state and Vietnamese foreign minister will hold an annual dialogue to discuss political-security issues of importance. Washington will use this mechanism to raise its concerns about violations in Vietnam, and create linkages between Hanoi’s human rights record and other areas of bilateral cooperation. Vietnam has been more open and candid in recent years, and understands that it needs to show some improvement.      

    Q3: What did Kerry accomplish in the Philippines?

    A3: Kerry’s visit to Manila was the first step in making up for his and President Obama’s cancelled trips in October—the former due to Tropical Storm Santi and the latter due to the partial government shutdown in Washington. The Philippines has been understandably disappointed that Obama has yet to visit the country, despite being a U.S. treaty ally.

    National Security Adviser Susan Rice on November 20 confirmed that the president will visit Asia in April to mend fences after his cancelled visit, and the Philippines is expected to be on the itinerary. But Kerry’s visit was an important stopgap. His message throughout his two days in the Philippines was that the bilateral relationship remains indispensable. He stressed Washington’s commitment to the U.S.-Philippine security treaty, and highlighted the special history between the two nations.

    Kerry laid a wreath at the American Cemetery outside Manila, where 16,600 Americans and 570 Filipinos are buried who died fighting together in World War Two. He also lauded an agreement signed a day earlier by U.S. and Philippine officials to restore and maintain a cemetery at the former U.S. Clark Air Base, which houses the remains of more than 8,600 U.S. and Philippine soldiers. The United States will contribute $5 million to that effort.

    In line with his commitments in Vietnam, Kerry announced that the United States would provide an additional $40 million in security assistance to the Philippines. The funds will be geared toward boosting maritime capacity and fighting terrorism in the southern Philippines. Kerry met with President Benigno Aquino and Secretary of State Albert Del Rosario for discussions that included China’s recent announcement of an ADIZ over the East China Sea, and stalled negotiations to boost U.S. troops and ship rotations in the Philippines.

    Kerry wrapped up his trip with a visit to Tacloban, the city most ravaged by last month’s Typhoon Haiyan, called Yolanda in the Philippines. He toured the devastated city, accompanied by Philippine secretary of defense Voltaire Gazmin. Kerry gave a speech honoring Philippine and U.S. soldiers and civilians who are aiding in the reconstruction effort, and noted that the joint relief effort has strengthened the bilateral alliance. Kerry announced $25 million in USAID assistance to help with clean water, sanitation, and temporary shelter, which comes on top of $62 million already provided by Washington.

    Gregory Poling is a fellow with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Phuong Nguyen is a research associate with the Sumitro Chair.

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