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Thayer Consultancy

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Background Briefing: Vietnam: John Kerry as Secretary of State Carlyle A. Thayer February 6, 2013

[client name deleted]: Could you offer your assessment of Senator John Kerrys confirmation as Secretary of State and the implications for Vietnam, taking into account his past experience and Vietnam and his participation in Presidents Bill Clintons difficult negotiations on normalizing relations with Vietnam? Specifically, could you address the following: Q1. How high would Vietnam be in Washington's priorities? ANSWER: Secretary of State John Kerrys tenure will reflect the priorities of President Obama and the legacy left by Hillary Rodman Clinton. In 2010 the US Defense Departments Quadrennial Defence Review identified Vietnam as one of three potential strategic partners in Southeast Asia. The others were Indonesia and Malaysia. When Hillary Clinton visited Hanoi she proclaimed that all the fundamentals in US-Vietnam relations were in place to take the relationship to the next level. Both sides then began to negotiate a strategic partnership agreement. Vietnam is an emerging regional middle power. It will remain important to the United States because of its role in ASEAN. Vietnam probably ranks sixth on the scale of Southeast Asian countries of importance to the United States. The list is relative not absolute. Singapore tops the list as a strategic partner, next come the Philippines and Thailand as treaty allies, then Indonesia and Malaysia, followed by Vietnam. US policy on the South China Sea will not change. The US will not take sides with Vietnam, China or any of the other claimants. The US will continue to urge that these disputes be settled peacefully in accord with international law. Q2 What's US' likely agenda for Vietnam? ANSWER: US-Vietnam talks on the strategic partnership have stalled because of Vietnams worsening human rights situation. Senator Kerry will keep the pressure on Vietnam to reverse this trend. At the same time, the United States will continue to engage Vietnam to cooperate in improving the regions security architecture, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus process and the East Asia Summit. The US will also have to address Vietnams needs, such as a continuing if not stepped up commitment to clean up the toxic effects of dioxin, a key component of Agent Orange and the disposal of wartime unexploded ordnance.

2 The US will also continue to give priority to public health programs and assist Vietnam in mitigating the impact of climate change. The latter will be addressed bilaterally and multilaterally through the Lower Mekong Initiative launched by former Secretary Clinton. Q3. What role do personal relations play in this post? Has JK had any dealing with the current Viet leadership? ANSWER: Secretary Kerry has considerable experience in dealing with the Vietnamese leadership that extends back several decades. More to the point, as a member and then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has met all of Vietnams high-level leaders during their visits to Washington. Senator Kerry will be able to make his own independent assessment of their character, values and goals. Since Vietnam places great importance on personal relations, this will be of benefit to Secretary Kerry when he attends ministerial meetings of ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum. Q4. Given John Kerrys experience in Vietnam both during and after the war, how would it affect the way he discharges his duties regarding Vietnam? ANSWER: John Kerrys experiences during the Vietnam War have coloured his view of the power of the US Executive to wage war without effective oversight of the Legislative branch of the US Government. Kerrys Vietnam experience has led him to focus on the POW/MIA issue. Secretary Kerry will be empathetic to the plight of Vietnams war veterans. But he will be at pains not to let his personal feelings cloud his judgment, just as Senator John McCain has done. John Kerry was anti-war but not pro-communist. Q5. Anything other assessment you care to make? ANSWER: While much has been made of John Kerrys Vietnam War experience, I think too much emphasis has been placed on this aspect of his background. John Kerry also has considerable experience in dealing with foreign policy issues spanning every region in the world including Latin America and the Middle East. Kerry will continue to give prominence to the Asia-Pacific because he is the servant of President Obama. He is on record, however, as being critical of the military aspect of the US pivot to Asia. Kerry can be expected to emphasize the non-military aspects of US rebalancing with the Asia-Pacific Region. At the same time, Secretary Kerry will have to give priority to current and emerging security issues not just in Asia but in the Middle East and northern Africa as well. Kerry will have to address US-China relations and North Koreas development of nuclear weapons as a priority. But he also must stay focused on Syria, Iran and Islamic extremism in Mali and northern Africa.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, Vietnam: John Kerry as Secretary of State, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, February 6, 2013.