NAYPYIDAW (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry kicked off a South-east Asian diplomatic charm offensive on Saturday, praising work to bring Washington's relationship with Vietnam to its "full blossom".
Kerry met his Vietnamese counterpart Pham Binh Minh in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw, in his first of a series of discussions with Asian nations as the US looks to reinvigorate alliances in the Asia-Pacific region.
The top US diplomat, who fought in the Vietnam War, hailed "progress" in the "partnership" between the two nations in comments ahead of the meeting.
He added that more contentious issues such as communist Vietnam's rights record would continue to be discussed as part of efforts "to really bring this relationship to its full blossom".
But he welcomed positive steps "on civil nuclear cooperation, on non-proliferation" and "approaches to the South China Sea".
Territorial disputes over the South China Sea are likely to dominate weekend discussions with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and other key regional and global players including China.
Washington has called for an end to "provocative" acts in the contested waters, following a spike in tensions between Vietnam and neighbouring China after Beijing in May moved an oil rig into an area near the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by both countries.
The placement of the rig, which has since been removed, triggered deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam.
The US normalised diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995 and has since seen trade flourish with its wartime foe.
But Washington has been outspoken in calls for improvements in the authoritarian nation's record on human rights and religious freedom.
Kerry hailed the restoration of relations between the two countries in December when he returned to Vietnam's Mekong Delta, which he navigated as a wartime gunboat skipper, to highlight its vulnerability to climate change.
The one-time presidential hopeful served with the US Navy from 1966 to 1970 as a naval lieutenant.
Fellow veteran Senator John McCain on Friday called for the US to "begin easing our lethal arms embargo on Vietnam", in comments during a visit to Hanoi.