HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (AP) — Forty-four years after first setting foot in Vietnam as a young naval officer, John Kerry has returned once more, this time as America's top diplomat.
Making his 14th trip to the Southeast Asian nation since the end of the war that profoundly influenced his political career and foreign policy thinking, Kerry arrived in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday.
Kerry wants to bolster the remarkable rapprochement with the former U.S. enemy that he encouraged and helped engineer as a senator in the 1990s. The Vietnam war ended in 1975 and led to a U.S. embargo against the former French colony. Since 1991, Kerry has made at least 13 trips to Vietnam to try to normalize relations. He began with visits aimed at clearing up lingering questions over the fate of American prisoners of war and those listed as missing in action from the conflict.
Here, in the city he first knew as Saigon, the capital of the former South Vietnam, Kerry will be meeting businesspeople, students and others to encourage continued American investment, education programs and robust respect for human rights.
On Sunday, he will travel to the Mekong River delta region, where he cut his military teeth as the commander of a swift patrol boat in 1968 and 1969. Kerry plans a riverboat cruise along waters that were his old haunts to inspect agriculture projects that are a mainstay of southern Vietnam's economy and assess the impact of upstream development and climate change.
He will then visit the capital of Hanoi for talks with senior Vietnamese officials. The discussions are expected to focus on maritime security and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, trade, human rights and democratic and economic reform in the communist country. U.S. officials traveling with Kerry say he will be making a strong case to the Vietnamese that respect for human rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, is key to improved relations with the United States.
In a bid to show support for the tenuous freedom of worship in Vietnam, Kerry, a practicing Catholic, attended Mass at Ho Chi Minh City's Notre Dame Cathedral, which was built in the 1880s and '90s under French colonial rule.
Vietnamese authorities have been criticized for harassing, prosecuting and jailing Catholic clergy.
Vietnam and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are deeply concerned about China's growing assertiveness in the region and 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 ratchet down tensions between China and its smaller neighbors over disputed territory.
China, however, has reacted angrily to the U.S. approach and earlier this month, over strenuous objections from Washington, 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.