Press Conference at American Center Auditorium

Press Conference
Daniel R. Russel
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Rose Garden Annex of the American Embassy
Hanoi, Vietnam
May 10, 2016

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Thank you very much, Lisa. I’m pleased to be back in Vietnam. I’m working to help prepare for the upcoming visit to Vietnam by President Obama.

I’ve had some very productive meetings already yesterday with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, the External Affairs Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam. I met with the Minister of Public Security. And today I have additional meetings with the Ministry of Justice and at the Prime Minister’s office.

I’m sure that you would like to hear all of the details about President Obama’s visit, but I have to tell you at the very beginning that it is for the White House, not for me, along with the government of Vietnam to announce the specifics. So I don’t have any details to give you today.

But I’ve been involved in the preparations and I have supported the past visits of Vietnam’s leaders to the United States in my previous job at the White House and in my current job at the Department of State, and I think I can give you some insights both about the relationship and about goals for the visit.

The organizing principle for the visit of President Obama is past, present and future. We will continue to work to overcome the issues that stem from our difficult past including war legacy issues. We will strengthen the important ongoing programs and activities that the U.S. and Vietnam are currently engaged in and we will continue our cooperation to deal with the many important regional and global challenges that face us both. And we will set the course for the future by investing even more heavily in Vietnam’s greatest asset -- its people -- its young people -- through educational programs, through academic exchanges, and invest in our common future through important priorities like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

President Obama had the honor of hosting Vietnam’s President, Prime Minister and General Secretary in Washington, so I know that he looks forward in Hanoi to being able to meet with Vietnam’s new leadership.

Let me just briefly mention five areas of importance in connection with this visit.

First, the visit will highlight that a strong, secure, prosperous and independent Vietnam that respects universal human rights and the rule of law is not only in the best interests of the people of Vietnam, it’s very much in America’s interest as well. Strengthening the U.S.-Vietnam partnership is an important element of our broad policy of rebalance to the Asia Pacific region. It’s also an important part of our economic agenda and Vietnam is a founding member of TPP. It benefits both countries and the region, and the United States is committed to support Vietnam’s ability to implement the TPP Agreement.

Expanding security cooperation is another important element of our growing partnership, both in terms of international peacekeeping, regional humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief, but also importantly, maritime domain awareness and maritime security.

A second major element is our people-to-people ties which have never been stronger, and through important youth exchange programs like YSEALI, through academic partnerships, through the inauguration of Fulbright University of Vietnam, and other English teaching programs, we are able to help invest in Vietnam’s young people and Vietnam’s future.

A third area of focus for the President and Vietnam’s leaders, I know, will be meeting the range of global and regional challenges. We are working together to address the effects of climate change as witnessed by the serious drought that the Mekong countries are experiencing, and we work together on other global issues like health and infectious diseases as well as the challenges of international terrorism.

And here in the region we are working to promote a rules-based order and address serious tensions in the South China Sea. Our goal is to ensure that the rights of all parties and international law are respected, and that each claimant takes steps to reduce tensions and deescalate the situation.

Fourth, the visit will advance our partnership in dealing with the legacy of the war including our cooperation on removing unexploded ordnance, UXO; in locating and returning the remains of our soldiers missing in action; and in remediating sites that were contaminated by dioxin, for example in DaNang.

And fifth, we will discuss and work together to support and expand human rights and legal reforms in Vietnam. This is a consistent and important element in our relationship. We have significant dialogue with the government of Vietnam on human rights issues both through our Human Rights Dialogue, but also in each of the meetings that officials like me conduct. We have a deep interest in the legal reforms that the government of Vietnam has undertaken in order to bring its own laws in compliance with the new constitution and with universal standards. We want to see all citizens, including the citizens of Vietnam, enjoy and exercise universal human rights because we believe that improvement of human rights not only is important to our bilateral relationship, but it’s also important to the stability and to the economic growth of our partner countries.

So with that, let me stop here and answer your questions.

QUESTION: Thank you. My name is [inaudible]. I’d like to know your [inaudible] views after your visit to Vietnam, [inaudible] for President Obama’s visit to [inaudible] completely the legal ban [inaudible] weapons, lethal weapons [inaudible]. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: Well no decision has been made on the question of the status of the U.S. lethal weapons ban which has been in place for decades, but it is an issue that is under periodic review.

Now remember, the United States partially lifted the ban already in 2014 in order to allow Vietnam to purchase defense articles that would support its ability to defend its own coast lines and its maritime space. Those defense activities are a legitimate expression of Vietnam’s sovereignty and the partial lift was in response to and a reflection of the growing strategic defense and security relationship between Vietnam and the United States.

The step that we took already in 2014 can support Vietnam’s maritime domain awareness and Vietnam’s ability to respond to natural disasters and crises in the region including through humanitarian response.

Now as we made clear at the time in 2014 and as continues to be the case, we take into consideration the incremental progress that Vietnam is making on important human rights issue in making these decisions. We made clear at the time and it remains true today that one of the important factors that would make a lift of the ban possible would be continued forward momentum in meeting universal human rights standards and progress in important legal reforms. So as our comprehensive partnership grows, this is an issue that we continue to take a serious look at.

QUESTION: Good morning. My name is [inaudible] Newspaper. I have a question.

Many people say there would be [inaudible] when Mr. President Barack Obama visits Vietnam this month because [inaudible] need the White House [inaudible]. So [inaudible] so much bilateral ties with Vietnam. And whether or not the new [inaudible] of the U.S. will change the policy for Vietnam. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: I can’t speak for a future government of the United States that hasn’t taken office yet, but I can speak for two things -- the current U.S. government and the national interests of the United States of America.

It is the policy of the United States government to support and to develop our comprehensive partnership with a strengthening of our economic ties, our political ties, our cultural and people-to-people ties, and to support Vietnam in becoming a more prosperous, stable and remaining an independent nation that contributes to regional and world affairs and that supports and defends the rights of its own citizens.

And the reason that we support a strong, secure, prosperous, independent Vietnam that respects its peoples’ human rights and the rule of law is because that directly benefits U.S. interests. As a career civil servant I have worked through several changes of government where control switched from one party to the other and a new president took office. But in every case, every single president has been committed to foreign policy that advances U.S. interests and U.S. principles. And since U.S. interests and U.S. principles are consistent, I think that you should expect that U.S. policy also will be consistent into a new U.S. administration.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is [inaudible] and I have a very small question.

I’d like to know when essentially the Obama visit [inaudible] and who will be met with by him? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: The White House and the government of Vietnam will announce the specifics of President Obama’s visit and his program. We know he plans to visit later in this month in connection with the G7 leaders meeting that will be held in Japan.

Typically, the President of the United States meets with government leaders, meets with business leaders and entrepreneurs, meets with representatives of society, citizens, and particularly with young people. And I know that in a country as famous as Vietnam for its extraordinary culture and its great food that President Obama will want to get out and see some of this great country. That’s certainly my recommendation to him.

QUESTION: [Inaudible] from the Wall Street Journal.

Does the U.S. have any concerns about the new administration of the Philippines? Do you consider that the new administration will continue the path set out by Benigno Aquino? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: There isn’t a new government in the Philippines yet. There will be on June 30 when a new president of the Philippines is inaugurated and we are waiting for the official results to be announced before we extend our congratulations to the winner of the recent elections. We congratulate the people of the Philippines on their exercise of vigorous democracy and frankly, we celebrate the fact that the Philippines is such an open and healthy democratic system.

The choice of president is 100 percent up to the people of the Philippines. We will respect their choice and we will gladly work with the leader that they select as we have for decades. The Philippines is a close ally and a long-time friend of the United States and I am confident that our two countries can continue to work closely together in our mutual interest and in the best interests of the region.

QUESTION: [Through Interpreter]. I’m from the Voice of Vietnam and my question is about, you have mentioned about the expansion of the bilateral security cooperation, so I’m interested in security in the South China Sea or the East Sea. In the context of the growing Chinese activity in the East Seas, how will the topic of security in the East Sea be discussed at the bilateral talks during the [inaudible]? And will there be any expected commitment or should we wait for the new government? New administration?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: The new administration in the United States? I see.

Let me start by making very clear that Barack Obama is the President of the United States until January 20, 2017, so don’t give up on us yet. [Laughter].

The situation in the South China Sea is a deep concern to all of us, not only to the claimant states like Vietnam or Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, but also to the countries in the region and to the international community, and I’ll tell you why.

The question of whether one island belongs to me or to you may be an issue between us, but the question of how we behave in international waters is of interest to the entire world. Now many countries have expressed deep concern about some of the behavior of China, a major claimant, in reclaiming land and conducting largescale construction and in militarizing outposts in the South China Sea.

Two days ago I was in Luang Prabang, Laos for a meeting of senior ASEAN officials along with representatives of relevant governments, the member states of the East Asia Summit, and in our discussions nearly all countries expressed deep concern about the rise in tensions in the South China Sea. Nearly all the countries expressed their strong belief that the parties must respect international law and respect the rights of all countries under international law.

The United States doesn’t take the side of one claimant against the other claimant, but we do take the side of international law, specifically the Law of the Sea. And although the United States is a very powerful country, the most powerful country on earth, and although our ships and planes can fly anywhere that international law permits, we will not be satisfied if all countries, including small countries, don’t have exactly the same rights that we do. All of the claimant countries in the South China Sea are friends of the United States and the United States has a strong interest in a stable region. So that is why we are working closely with Vietnam, with China, and with the other claimants as well as with ASEAN in order to reduce tensions and to encourage a diplomatic process and the restraint that will contribute to a prosperous region.

Secretary Kerry had a very thorough discussion of the South China Sea issue with Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh when he visited Washington recently. I’ve had a thorough discussion with my Vietnamese counterparts. And I fully expect this issue will be discussed in depth between President Obama and Vietnam’s leaders.

QUESTION: [Through Interpreter]. Recently the U.S. warship made several patrol tours within [inaudible] 12 nautical miles areas surrounding the [inaudible] islands of China’s to exercise freedom of navigation. But after such patrols by the U.S. [inaudible] the militarization of China seemed to get stronger. So it seems that such patrols was made more [inaudible] of other claimants in the South China Sea. So what is your opinion of that, and the opinion of the U.S. government?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY RUSSEL: The exercise by the United States Navy of our rights under international law, which are the same rights that China has and the same rights that Vietnam has, is a global worldwide policy. It is a decades-long policy and it is in support of an open international system. If the world’s most powerful Navy cannot sail where international law permits, then what happens to the ships, the Navy of a smaller country? If a warship can’t exercise its legitimate rights under international law at sea, then what about a fisherman? What about a cargo ship? How will they prevent themselves from being blocked by a stronger nation?

The United States has no claim and no desire to acquire any islands or any maritime space in the South China Sea. We’re not grabbing anything. We’re not taking anything away from someone else. We’re trying to do two things. We are trying to keep the oceans open for everybody, and we are trying to ensure that there is no erosion of international legal rights.

The freedom of navigation operations that you mentioned are not provocations. They are good citizenship. Good global citizenship.

Thank you very much.