Background Briefing in Hanoi, Vietnam
MODERATOR: Okay. So we are in Vietnam. We completed our day with the Vietnamese. We are here with [Senior State Department Official] hereafter as Senior State Department Official. [Senior State Department Official] is going to give you little bit of a sense of our day-to-day, and then we’ll complete today and take a pause.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Great. So – and this is all –
MODERATOR: This is on background.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. So, guys, just a little bit of how to think about sort of what the sessions were like today, probably among all the countries in Asia, the – ironically it is a communist country, it’s Vietnam that has the biggest debates inside the government about the way forward. They have – among some in the more liberal ministries, like the Foreign Affairs Ministry and others – on the economic side, a deep and profound desire to have a much closer relationship with the United States, to improve their lot on human rights, and to take the necessary steps on the economic side to essentially join the international community. In many respects, it’s almost disorienting. So for a certain group of people a little older than us, that experienced Vietnam in a very different way, to interact with people who, more than almost any other nation, want to establish a kind of partnership with the United States is really remarkable.
That group is balanced by another group. And the reason that the Secretary met the General Secretariat today of the Communist Party is that there are elements within the Politburo and within the Ministry of State Security and the military that are deeply wary of the relationship with the United States. They are worried about contamination. They worry about what’s going on in terms of an increasingly restive population on labor issues. And they are very vigilant with respect to sort of longstanding dissidents like Father Ly and the like.
The interesting issue, guys, is the role of how China is going to affect this debate, right. So what is happening right now – and you’re probably watching this – one of the most interesting aspects inside Vietnam is that much of the sort of repressive apparatus is actually aimed at people that are demonstrating against China, right, which the government wants to be careful not to get out of hand. There’s a deep and profound anti-China sentiment that has been stirred most recently by China’s attempt to claim the areas that are just offshore of Vietnam, 60 to 70 miles, well within the 200 mile economic zone of – EEZ of Vietnam.
So most Vietnamese now, even the hardline guys, are saying, look, we want a better relationship with the United States. They want us to ease our policy on certain kinds of defense articles. They want a closer relationship, and they want us to be clear and firm with respect to our position on the South China Sea. It is undeniably the case that our relationship has improved dramatically with Vietnam.
And what is happening in Asia generally is that Vietnam has become basically the second site, in which still a vast majority of investment is going to China, but increasingly a lot of countries are choosing Vietnam for major investment. So the thing that the Secretary just mentioned, Intel prize, it’s massive chip program, was initially conceptualized for China, but more and more particularly Japan, other countries are looking more and more at Vietnam, okay.
And so what we’re trying to do is basically engage generally but make clear to them that if they want a better relationship with us they’re going to have to take the necessary steps on the economic side and they’re going to have to improve their human rights record, which in fact in some cases has digressed rather than improved. And so that’s sort of our overall picture.
What’s happened in the last couple of weeks has really animated the leadership, and I have rarely seen them more attentive to wanting and needing a better relationship with the United States. So that’s sort of the background for the day. But it is probably the country that the potential for an improved relationship is the most substantial. So just to give you guys sort of context for this, when I worked at the Pentagon in the 1990s, we first opened diplomatic military relations with the military. It was inconceivable that there would ever be a day that a Secretary of Defense would go to Cam Ranh Bay, much less have American ships go there regularly. That is now something that is in no way kind of – it’s now even particularly controversial, right. So the potential is enormous going forth.
Okay. So tomorrow –
MODERATOR: Let’s finish on Vietnam, and then we’ll go into a different session and do the going forward.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay.
MODERATOR: Any questions on Vietnam before we go in a different direction?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: You have to make sure the folks command the ground --
QUESTION: Can you tell us a little bit about what the Communist Party – term?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah.
QUESTION: -- had to say as far as --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: (inaudible)
QUESTION: -- thank you –human rights issues go?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah. I think it would be fair to say that what is fascinating – and again, with the foreign ministry types and others – is that they in many respects are quite sympathetic to our push, and they understand very clearly what’s going to be necessary in terms of Vietnam having a better relationship with the United States. And again, the reason that we want to meet with the folks on the party side was these objections that we hear.
Secretary Clinton made an incredibly clear, very firm case about why, with specific names and concerns, and underscored that we have been raising these cases now for, in some cases, years with little or no progress and on some of the key issues, like Father Ly. All right.
MODERATOR: Anything else on Vietnam?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: And I – no – just – and I think, to be perfectly honest, his response – he was uncomfortable in the session, and I think time will tell. But I think the fact that he took the meeting – and I think what we’re seeing are more and more that people on the senior side that I think are coming around a little bit to a recognition that this is going to be necessary for them.
QUESTION: So you guys asked for the meeting? It wasn’t something that he --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, no, we asked. We asked. In fact, it was very hard to see him. He’s not – does not meet – and you can tell when certain folks are not that comfortable in certain meetings, and he clearly – he was fine, but it’s not – he’s not a person I don’t think who’s normally accustomed to someone sitting down and going through human rights issues with him.
MODERATOR: Anything else on Vietnam? Okay.
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