By Lesley Wroughton
HO CHI MINH CITY, Dec 14 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will seek closer trade and security ties between the United States and Vietnam in a visit that began on Saturday and in which he will also raise human right concerns.
For Kerry, 70, the four-day trip to the commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta and the capital Hanoi will be as much about seeing progress in a country where he served as naval officer in 1968 during the Vietnam War, as about strengthening diplomacy with an old war rival.
While Kerry visited Vietnam 13 times as a U.S. senator it is his first to the country as secretary of state. As he tries to negotiate peace between the Israeli's and Palestinians, Kerry has often said there are lessons to learn from the reconciliation between the U.S. and Vietnam.
His visit comes as the United States strives to reach a trade deal with 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Vietnam. A Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is the centerpiece of U.S. efforts to refocus attention on the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region.
U.S. lawmakers pressed Kerry before his departure for Vietnam to link progress on the TPP to Vietnam's human rights record. A letter by 47 members of the House of Representatives to Kerry last week expressed concern over growing arrests of bloggers and other activists in Vietnam.
A 2012 State Department report on human rights in Vietnam cited restrictions on citizens' political rights, limits on civil liberties and corruption as major problems in the country, along with arrests and detentions of religious groups.
A senior State Department official said Kerry intended to raise human rights concerns in his conversations with senior Vietnamese government officials.
While Vietnam President Truong Tan Sang is out of the country attending an Japan-ASEAN summit, Kerry will meet Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh.
"The U.S. is prepared to assist Vietnam in its economic development and growth but at the same time believes that progress on human rights and rule of law is essential prerequisites for the kind of growth and kind of long-term stabililty, well as the kind of bilateral relationship, that the Vietnamese want," the official told reporters en route to Vietnam.
"These are conversations not lectures," the official said. "The visit to Vietnam is an opportunity to be direct in private (on these issues), " the official added.
During the visit Kerry will also discuss ways in which the United States could help Vietnam with increased maritime security at a time of growing concerns over neighbor China's assertiveness in the contested South China Sea.
The heightened tensions with China have raised concerns that an minor incident in the disputed sea could quickly escalate.
U.S. and Chinese warships narrowly avoid collision in the South China Sea last week, the U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement on Friday.
"We do see considerable shared interests and are more than prepared to help the Vietnamese develop their legitimate ability to manage their maritime space through capacity building and other forms of assistance," the senior State Department official said.
Beijing's assertion of sovereignty over a vast stretch of the South China Sea has set it directly against Vietnam and the Philippines -- the two countries Kerry is visiting -- while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also lay claim to other parts of the sea, making it one of Asia's biggest potential trouble spots.
At stake are potentially massive offshore oil reserves. The sea also lies on shipping lanes and fishing grounds. Vietnam has accused China of harassing or attacking Vietnamese shipping boats in the South China Sea.
Beijing has resisted proposals for a multilateral code of conduct for the waters, preferring to negotiate disputes with each of the far less powerful claimants.
(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Michael Perry)