Secretary Kerry on Future of U.S.-Vietnam Relationship

Secretary Kerry on Future of U.S.-Vietnam Relationship


JOHN KERRY: Well good afternoon,
and welcome everybody. [APPLAUSE] This is a really historic moment
as we mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of
normal diplomatic relations between the United
States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and
what a journey it has been. And I congratulate
all those of you who have helped to
make this happen. I am really delighted
by the presence of Deputy Prime Minister and
Foreign Minister, Pham Binh Minh. Thank you so much for your
partnership and efforts. We really appreciate
what you do. [APPLAUSE] And I’m very pleased to
be here with the President that just said to me, pointed
to Ted Osius, our ambassador, and said, he’s Vietnamese. He’s not American. [LAUGHTER] And I said, you’ve
converted him. But the truth is, he’s one
of our finest diplomats, Ambassador Ted Osius. Thank you for what you do. Appreciate it. I have to tell you
that seeing Ted, I’m reminded, perhaps a little
bit painfully, of when we first met. It was about 17 years ago, and
I was then a U. S. Senator, and I came here to
participate in a bike ride with American veterans,
particularly a number who had been wounded during the
war who were doing this ride. And the heat and
humidity obviously made it a challenging
ride, but even worse, every time that I
eased up on my pedals, and I’d look ahead,
there was Ted Osius, cruising away like he was
on some kind of lazy Sunday afternoon jaunt. And I later found out
why he looks so good. Ted was what we in
the United States would call a ringer,
that is someone who makes it look
like he’s riding a bike for the first time,
but he’s really pretty expert. And I learned that he
once rode the full 1,200 miles between Hanoi
and Ho Chi Minh City, and unlike some
people that I know, he cycled a great distance
without falling off his bike, folks. [LAUGHTER] I actually will never
forget the crowd of citizens in Ho Chi Minh city
that assembled at the finish line to cheer us on that day. They performed acrobatics. There was a dragon dance. There was a high wire act. And as we left, Ted stood up
and, in perfect Vietnamese, he thanked everybody
for contributing in such a spontaneous
and heartfelt way to the healing between
our two countries. And as we all know, that
healing took a while. And it didn’t come
easy for either side. It was a painstaking
process that required a lot of hard work,
a certain amount of courage, and some compromise. And we all know that there
could have been no progress without resolving the
great unanswered questions at the time, surrounding
the possibility of missing Americans left behind
in Southeast Asia. We also knew that
those of us who had set out to build
a new relationship were tempting the emotions
of opposition of many people in both countries. Into that cacophonous
cauldron, John McCain and I were thrown together. Some were suspicious
of both of us, but together we
found common ground. And I will personally
never forget standing with John McCain
in the very cell in the Hanoi Hilton in which
he spent a number of years of his life, just the two
of us, alone in that cell as I listened to him talk
about the experience. I will always be grateful
for his partnership in helping to make real
peace with Vietnam. And I’ll always be
grateful, especially to the Vietnamese people. They helped us to search
for a few thousand of our fallen troops,
even as a larger number, a far larger number
of theirs, remained missing. They voluntarily dug up
their own rice paddies. They let us into their homes,
into their history houses, into their prisons even. And on more than
one occasion, they guided us across, what were
quite literally, minefields. In a place where there were
many reasons for bitterness, there was none. And I am grateful
to the leaders who had the vision to make
the decisions to help us move forward. I personally took in the
vicinity of some 16 or 17 trips to the region,
studied every detail of the stories behind
the missing soldiers, relived my own memories of the
war during the time I was here, and, eventually, one of the
things we are proudest of, those of us involved in this,
was that this work became part, actually, the
creation of the most comprehensive and
exhaustive accounting of the missing and dead
in all of the history of human warfare. Together, we provided answers
to hundreds of waiting families in our country, and we
also helped the Vietnamese to be able to find answers for
their own missing, which were far larger number than ours. What is most important,
that work still continues. So many people on both sides
gave years of their lives to this effort. I particularly want
to thank all those who took part in
the investigation and the diplomacy that followed. My close advisers, Francis
Zwenig, and Nancy Stetson, and Virginia “Ginny” Foote; John
McCain’s adviser, Mark Salter; the investigation’s Chief
Counsel, Bill Codinha, my lifelong friend who
was here; Tommy Vallely, and steadfast partners
with that effort. I know Chris Gregory, another
veteran who’s also here; and then partners in the Senate,
Chuck Robb, Bob Kerry, Chuck Hagel, all veterans of
the war; Congressman Pete Peterson, a former
prisoner of war; General John Vessey, and
Admiral Chuck Larson. On the Vietnamese side-
Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, Foreign Ministers, Nguyen
Manh Cam and Nguyen Co Thach, the father of our current
Deputy Prime Minister; Ambassador Le Van Bang,
Ambassador Phan, who was here, who did an extraordinary
job of translating; General Secretary Do Muoi;
and General Le Duc Anh. They were all instrumental
and committed to this effort and made difficult decisions. Standing here today, I am
reminded now of conversations that I have had recently with
people to talk almost casually about the prospect of war,
with one country or another, and I am tempted to say, you
don’t have the first idea of what you were talking about. For sure, there
are times when one may have no choice
but to go to war, but it is never
something to rush to or to accept without exploring
every other available option. The war that took
place here a half a century ago divided
each of our countries, and it stemmed from the
most profound failure of diplomatic insight
and political vision. Looking back, we
honor the bravery of those who fought
on both sides, and we will never cease to mourn
those who were lost or injured. Let me be clear, the process
of moving on, and healing, and restoring our diplomatic
ties is not about forgetting. If we forget, we cease to learn. And the tragedy of
what happened here should be a constant reminder
of the horror and the suffering that war inflicts. But neither are we here
to dwell on the past. For many years, I
have looked forward to the time when Americans
would hear the word “Vietnam” and think more of a
country, not a conflict. I believe I can say
again, without failing to honor past
sacrifice and service, that we have reached
that point now. As reflected by General
Secretary Trong’s visit to Washington last
month, our leaders are deeply engaged
on a wide range of economic and
insecurity issues. Our citizens are getting
to know each other better through student exchanges,
business deals, tourism, family ties. More and more Americans
of Vietnamese descent are now building
new ties to the land that they, or their parents,
and their grandparents left, another important
part of our healing process. As a senator, I
used to point out that the generation at that
time, when I was working with people to normalize,
at that time, the generation at that time was
born after the war. Well today, the young
adults of American Vietnam were born after the
normalization of relations, let alone the war. What was extraordinary
to my generation could not be more routine or
natural to this generation. So the time has
come to look ahead and to understand that
the United States-Vietnam agenda is no longer shaped
primarily by what was. We are not still in the
process of reconciliation. The big news today is that
the United States and Vietnam have reconciled. But you don’t have to
take my word for it. Just look at the transformation
that has taken place. 20 years ago, there
were fewer than 60,000 annual American
visitors to Vietnam. Today, there are
nearly half a million. 20 years ago, there were fewer
than 800 Vietnamese students studying in the United States. Today, there are 17,000. 20 years ago, bilateral trade
between us and our goods was only $451 million. Today, it’s more
than $36 billion. These aren’t just statistics. They are a measure of one of the
most remarkable transformations in history. In 2013, President Obama
and President Sang launched a comprehensive partnership
between our governments, a partnership that also extends
more broadly to our people’s. Today, we are
strengthening our ties in a host of areas- education,
the environment, science, technology, high-tech,
the internet, and even military-to-military
cooperation. We also have a
priceless opportunity to achieve a
breakthrough on trade. The negotiations for a
Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement began more
than five years ago. They involve a dozen nations
along the Pacific Rim, and they would elevate
trade among the countries representing nearly 40% of
the globe’s economic output. When we complete
this agreement, we will have built an
unprecedented regional platform on which to support innovation,
and create jobs, enhance the environment, improve
working conditions, and strengthen commercial
ties from Hanoi and Tokyo to Santiago and Washington DC. It is no wonder that
surveys show strong support for this landmark agreement
in both of our countries. More trade with
higher standards, including the right to form
independent labor unions, is a critical
milestone on the path to a shared and
sustainable future. Now for sure, the true
measure of our partnership is not just whether
our economies grow. It is also how they grow. We know that rising sea
levels, increasingly frequent and intense
typhoons, poorly planned dams, and drought, and
salt water intrusion pose a terrible threat to the
Mekong Delta with its heavily populated low-lying areas. Many of you know that I was
introduced to the Lower Mekong into the Mekong Delta years ago
under different circumstances, and to me, it has
a special meaning. I spent some time in
that delta decades ago when I was in the
United States Navy. And I got to know the
canals and the rivers very well- the incredible
panorama of children, rice paddies, water buffalo,
the incredible fish, and the natural beauty
everywhere that you look. But natural beauty is only
part of the Mekong story. The river basin is also
the economic lifeblood of an entire region, helping
to sustain the lives, pay the bills, and fill the
stomachs of more than 70 million people. Who would’ve thought when
I was patrolling around on a boat in the
Mekong River in 1968 and ’69 that, nearly
half a century later, I would have a chance to
help create an initiative to help save that very river. But that is what we are
doing with our partners Cambodia, Thailand, Laos
PDR, Vietnam, Myanmar, and a group of donor friends. Through the Lower
Mekong Initiative, we are working to improve
the country’s resilience to the effects of
climate change. And the United
States is focusing assistance on clean
energy and the development of sustainable infrastructure
and ecosystem resource management. We have seen the
warnings, my friends, and we are committed to
translating our mutual concern into action. We have learned through
years of mistakes that a healthy environment
and a healthy economy go hand in hand, so does a high
performing system of education. Vietnam is one of the
youngest countries in the world- 23 million people,
a quarter of the country, below the age of 15. So it is good that the
commitment to education in Vietnam is strong with
literacy rates above 90% and more than 160
colleges and universities. But here, as in many countries,
including in the United States, there is often a gap
between what students learn in the classroom
and the skills that are required in the workplace. To succeed in today’s
global economy, graduates must know
more than what to think. They must also
know how to think, and they must have the incentive
to innovate and to pursue new ideas. One way to ensure that
is to create partnerships between top academic
institutions, which is exactly the course that we are on. The Institute of
International Education has sponsored a series of
partnerships between U. S. universities and Vietnam. The University of Hawaii
offers an Executive MBA program that is accredited in the
United States and in Vietnam. And thanks to the
hard work and vision of people like Tommy
Vallely, and an endorsement from the government
here, we’re moving ahead with the founding of Fulbright
University in Ho Chi Minh City. In fact, just last
month, Vietnam issued a license
for construction to begin on the school, which
is affiliated with Harvard and will emphasize
academic freedom and an awareness of what the
global marketplace demands. Two decades ago, when the
United States and Vietnam normalized relations,
we did share a vision that our two countries would
one day cooperate on education, the environment, the economy. But the fact is that something
far less predictable, indeed less imaginable, has now become
the new normal because today we are cooperating on
security issues, as well. For example, Vietnam is a
partner in America’s Global Peace Operations Initiative. Last year, it began contributing
to UN peace operations in a small way, but with plans
to send engineering, medical, and other specialized
units in the near future. Together with the United
Kingdom the United States, our country is helping
personnel from this country to be able to prepare
for those specialized kinds of deployments. During General Secretary’s
Trong’s visit to Washington, we also signed a
memorandum of understanding as part of our Global
Health Security Agenda to help build capacity,
to prevent and respond to the spread of
epidemic disease. And as we have all been
reminded in recent times, a threat to public
health anywhere is a danger everywhere. And so countries
need to work together if we’re going to safeguard
the well-being of our citizens. It requires cooperation. Diseases that know no border,
diseases that can spread around the world with the global
marketplace threaten everybody, and we all need to build the
capacity to be able to respond. Our two governments
also share an interest in freedom of navigation and
peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. The United States
has made it clear that we do not favor one
set of claims over another, but we do support a process
through which disputes can be resolved peacefully
and in accordance with international law. International law treats
all countries equally. It does not recognize
spheres of influence or the right of large
nations to impose their will on smaller neighbors
simply because they can. It tells us that the
resolution of disputes should depend on who has
the better argument, who has the law on their side,
not who has the bigger army. That is a core tenet of
America’s foreign policy in this region, as it
has been in other regions over the years. Whether big or
small, all countries should refrain from provocative
acts that add to tensions or might further
militarize the sea. Finally, today, relations
between the United States and Vietnam are, as I
noted, comprehensive. Even as we focus
on the future, we continue our joint
recovery operations to answer every
question regarding the possible fate of
Americans or Vietnamese still unaccounted
for, and this is something we have
continued to do in the rest of Southeast Asia. It is perhaps notable
that in our quest to resolve the issues of
POW/MIA, together with Cambodia and Laos PDR, the United
States and Vietnam created this extraordinary, most
comprehensive and exhaustive effort to account
for missing and lost, and I believe that is a
fundamental and important statement about the values
of our two countries. That quest will continue for
as long as there are leads. We’ve also reached a
milestone in our ability to be able to reclaim the soil
that was contaminated by dioxin in Vietnam, particularly in the
vicinity of Danang Air Base, and to find and
remove explosives that remain from the war. It is worth remembering that
it was our mutual effort to develop an understanding on
these very issues, issues that came directly out of the bitter
conflict that first began to break down the
barriers of mistrust that separated our countries. The barriers of mistrust
and misunderstanding are continuing to fall. And I hope on other issues
that our governments have debated over the
years, that we will continue to be able to make progress. I am happy, for instance,
that we have established such an honest, substantive,
and increasingly productive dialogue on human
rights and democratic freedoms. The freedom to speak,
the freedom to worship, to travel, to acquire
knowledge and information, and to take part in
decisions that affect one’s life- these are essentials. Every country and
culture is unique, and we respect the differences
of basic structures of governance. But this idea of freedom
is universally recognized. It is rooted in our
fundamental human need to be accorded dignity and
to be treated with respect. Here in Vietnam,
your new constitution speaks of democracy and pledges
to protect human rights. And in my conversation
today with President Sang, he couldn’t have been more
clear about how important it is to the leaders of
Vietnam to respect the rights of their people. They do and want to. Your government is committed
to make Vietnam’s domestic laws conform to that new constitution
into international human rights standards. Independent surveys
have shown consistently that the Vietnamese people
have a deep admiration for democratic institutions
and values, a trait that they certainly have in common with
the citizens of the United States. And so even as we respect the
different political systems, we also have grounds
for discussion about the implementation of
constitutional protections, about political prisoners,
the role of journalists, legal reform, and what it
means to observe and practice what our commitments
require in principle. The United States recognizes
that only the Vietnamese people can determine their
political system, and we speak with some
humility on these matters because, as you
can read in see, we are working hard to
perfect our own system. But there are basic principles
that we will always defend. No one should be punished
for speaking their mind, so long as they are peaceful. And if trading goods
flow freely between us, so should information and ideas. And we believe that
progress in upholding these basic human
rights will absolutely serve Vietnam’s interests
in several ways. First, international norms
and standards protect Vietnam. Vietnam rightly
appeals to them when its interests are threatened. It is important, therefore,
as your government has recognized, to
respect those standards and norms without exception. Second, giving people
peaceful outlets for expressing
grievances, whether it’s a blogger who exposes
corruption or a farmer who complains about a land grab. It decreases the chance that
people will resort to violence and get their message across. And it will help the
government to keep up with changes that
are already happening as the world at large changes. After all, millions
of people in Vietnam are already freely expressing
themselves on Facebook. Many thousands of
Vietnamese workers are already freely associating
to defend their interests, even though it is
sometimes risky. Giving full recognition
to these rights in the law will increase trust between
citizens and their state, and between workers
and their employers. It will strengthen social
cohesion and stability. Finally, progress on human
rights and the rule of law will provide the foundation for
a deeper and more sustainable strategy and strategic
partnership between the United States and Vietnam. Only you can decide the
pace and the direction of the process of
building this partnership, but I am sure you have
noticed that America’s closest partnerships in the world
are with countries that share a commitment to certain values. The more we have in
common, the easier it will be to convince our
people to deepen the bonds and make the sacrifices
on each other’s behalf. Vietnam and our shared journey
from conflict to friendship crosses my mind
frequently as I grapple with the complex challenges
that we face in the world today, from strife
in the Middle East, to the dangers of violent
extremism with Daesh, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and dozens
of other violent extremists, and also, even the dangers
of the march of technology with cyber intrusion and
potential of cyber warfare. That we are standing
here today celebrating 20 years of normalized
relations is proof that we are not doomed merely
to repeat the mistakes that we have made in the past. We have the ability to
overcome great bitterness, and to substitute
trust for suspicion, and replace enmity with respect. The United States and
Vietnam have again proven that former
adversaries really can become partners, even
in the complex world that we face today. And as much as that
achievement matters to us, it is also a profound
and timely lesson to the rest of the world. When President Clinton announced
America’s decision in 1995, he did so with a clear mission. Echoing the words of
the scriptures, he said, “Let this moment be a time to
heal and the time to build.” It took us 20 years
to normalize ties. It took us 20 more years to
move from healing to building. Think of what we can accomplish
in the 20 years to come. I told you at the start about
our ambassador’s bicycling adventures. Well, this spring, he joined our
Assistant Secretary of State, Tom Malinowski, and officials
from Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry in scaling Vietnam’s
highest peak, mountain Fansipan. He tells me it was a tough
climb, through rain and cloud, and then down in darkness when
the party almost lost its way. But they made it together. Together, and so it is with us. There are steep
hills yet to climb and hard choices to
make for our partnership in order to reach
its full potential, but we know that the sky
above us is the limit. Given what we have
achieved, and our people’s common aspirations, anything
and everything is possible. That is a testament to
the grit and determination of both Americans
and Vietnamese, and a powerful sign
that, although ever mindful of the past,
we are dedicated to a future of prosperity,
peace, and freedom for all. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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  1. Stephen Weikum

    What a great speech! So many fantastic and memorable words… by far my favorite speech by Secretary Kerry. God bless America and God bless Việt Nam!

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