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In new role, Kerry back in Vietnam's Mekong Delta


December 15. 2013 12:36AM
Associated Press



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(AP) John Kerry returned Sunday to the winding waterways of Vietnam's Mekong Delta region where he once patrolled on a naval gunboat in the search for communist insurgents.


But nearly 50 years later, Kerry was promoting sustainable aquaculture and trade in a rapidly expanding economy rather than hunting Viet Cong guerrillas at the height of the Vietnam War.


As Kerry's boat eased off a jetty onto the Cai Nuoc River, the secretary of state told his guide: "I've been on this river many times." Asked how he felt about returning to the scene of his wartime military service for the first time, Kerry replied: "Weird and it's going to get weirder"


On this tour, Kerry was clad in long, drab olive cargo pants, a blue-and-white plaid long-sleeved shirt and sunglasses instead of the uniform he wore as a Navy officer in 1968 and 1969. In a new role, Kerry was revisiting the Delta's rivers that made a vivid impression on him as a young lieutenant.


Kerry, standing next to the captain and surveying the brown water and muddy banks, recalled the smell of burning firewood as his boat passed through small fishing villages.


At one point, a family in a sampan traveling in the opposite direction smiled and waved. Kerry waved back, and noticing the family had a dog on board, remarked with a smile: "I had a dog, too. Its name was VC." VC was the abbreviation for the Viet Cong, forces fighting the South Vietnamese and their U.S. allies.


Stopping in the village of Kien Vang, Kerry visited a riverfront general store and bought candy for a group of children.


He asked about soil erosion and rising water levels that not only threaten the livelihoods of the rural peasantry but continues to displace significant populations in the delta.


Kerry first set foot in Vietnam 44 years ago, as a U.S. Navy officer who volunteered for service because, as he has said, "it was the right thing to do."


Kerry was decorated with three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star for fighting in a conflict that he came to despise and call a "colossal mistake" and one that profoundly influenced his political career and strategic view.


"When I came home after two tours of duty, I decided that the same sense of service demanded something more of me," he wrote in in his 2003 book "A Call to Service" as he was unsuccessfully campaigning for the presidency. "This led me to protest the very war in which I had fought."


"The lesson I learned from Vietnam is that you quickly get into trouble if you let foreign policy or national security policy get too far adrift from our values as a country and as a people."


He arrived back on Saturday for his 14th trip to the country since the war's end but his first in 13 years, determined to bolster the remarkable rapprochement that he had encouraged and helped engineer as a senator in the 1990s. He is offering security assurances and working to promote democratic and economic reforms in the communist country.


"I can't think of two countries that have worked harder, done more and done better to try to bring themselves together and change history, to change the future, to provide a future for people that is very, very different," Kerry told a group of businesspeople, students and others at the U.S. Consulate's American Center in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday.


Kerry last visit to Vietnam was in 2000, when Bill Clinton became the first American president to visit since the end of the war in 1975 and the start of the U.S. embargo against the former French colony.


Between 1991 and 2000, Kerry traveled 13 times to Vietnam to try to normalize relations, beginning with visits to clear up lingering questions over the fate of American prisoners of war and those listed as missing in action.


In the city he first knew as Saigon, the capital of the former South Vietnam, Kerry met Saturday with members of the business community and entrepreneurs to talk up the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a broad trade agreement that the U.S. is now negotiating with Vietnam and nine other Asian countries.


To take full advantage of the deal's economic opportunities, Kerry said Vietnam, which has been widely criticized for its human rights record, must embrace changes.


"A commitment to an open Internet, to a more open society, to the rights of people to be able to exchange their ideas, to high-quality education, to a business environment that supports innovative companies and to the protection of individual people's human rights and their ability to be able to join together and express their ideas, all of these things create a more vibrant and a more powerful economy, as well as a society," Kerry said.


"It strengthens a country, it doesn't weaken it," Kerry said. "The United States urges leaders here to embrace that possibility and to protect those rights."


He made the comments after attending Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the 1880s and 1890s under French colonial rule, in a bid to show support for the tenuous freedom of worship in Vietnam. Vietnamese authorities have been criticized for harassing, prosecuting and jailing Catholic clergy.


In the Mekong River delta region he visited Sunday, Kerry had commanded a swift patrol boat in 1968 and 1969. Kerry's schedule included a riverboat cruise along waters that were his old haunts. He intended to inspect agriculture projects that are a mainstay of southern Vietnam's economy and assess the impact of upstream development and climate change.


In later talks with Vietnamese officials in Hanoi, Kerry was expected to make the case that respect for human rights, particularly freedom of speech and religion, is essential to improved relations with the United States. He also was expected to raise the issue of political prisoners whom the United States would like to see released.


The chief focus of the discussions, however, was expected to be maritime security and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.


Vietnam and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are deeply concerned about China's growing assertiveness. They are looking to the United States to serve as a counterbalance by stepping up its traditional role as a guarantor of security in the Asia-Pacific.


The Obama administration has pledged to do so as part of its self-described "pivot to Asia," with calls for a binding code of conduct on the high seas to ease tensions between China and its smaller neighbors over disputed territory.


China has reacted angrily to the U.S. approach. Earlier this month, over strenuous objections from Washington, Beijing announced a new air defense zone over parts of the East China Sea, where it has competing claims with Japan. Chinese officials have since said they might declare a similar zone in the South China Sea.


From Vietnam, Kerry will travel to the Philippines, which has its own maritime disputes with China.


Associated Press


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