The U.S.-Vietnam Relationship: Advancing Peace and Prosperity in 2015

Puneet Talwar
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
January 23, 2015

As prepared

Thank you very much. Cam on.

Let me thank Dr. Tuan Hoang for his very kind introduction, and for the important work he has done, both as a former Minister Counselor at Vietnam’s Embassy in the United States, and here in Vietnam, to deepen the bond between our countries.

It’s wonderful to be in Hanoi, a beautiful and bustling city with over one thousand years of history and culture. And I’m especially honored to be here at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, an institution that not only provides thoughtful insight on the major foreign policy issues of today, but also educates the leaders of tomorrow.

I want to also thank Vice Foreign Minister Ha Kim Ngoc and the entire Vietnamese government for such a warm welcome.

Yesterday and earlier today, my team and I held very productive discussions with our counterparts from Vietnam. We brought representation from the State Department, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, the United States Coast Guard, and United States Pacific Command. And on the Vietnamese side, we met with representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of National Defense, and the Ministry of Public Security.

As you can tell from the delegations, our discussions were very serious and covered the full range of issues. And I think the scope of these talks over the last two days is the most recent data point on an upward trajectory that shows how far our relationship has come.

I can certainly speak for the American side when I say that this year’s dialogue has set a positive and encouraging tone for 2015, which is an historic year in U.S.-Vietnam relations.

Many of us still remember a time when an event like this one, with a visiting American diplomat speaking at Vietnam’s diplomatic academy, would have been unimaginable. But thanks to the vision and direction from our leaders over the past two decades, here we are.

As the Vietnamese proverb goes, An qua nho ke trong cay, which for those who don’t speak Vietnamese, means, “When eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.”

So this year, as we celebrate the 20th year of normalized ties, let us remember those who planted the seeds of friendship and partnership… who even in the darkest of days, had the courage and vision to see a brighter path ahead.

Twenty years ago, in 1995, President Clinton and President Anh, along with leaders like Senator John McCain and then-Senator John Kerry, ushered in a new chapter in this relationship. Many others, including Secretary Colin Powell and Secretary Hillary Clinton, built on this important groundwork and helped guide us to where we are today.

But change did not just happen at the leader-to-leader level. It also happened at the people-to-people level, with thousands of American and Vietnamese students studying abroad, forging friendships, and exchanging ideas and cultures, dreaming of the future rather than being shackled by the past.

Both our leaders and our peoples took bold steps so that today, all of us could enjoy the fruits of their labor – with more trade between our businesses, more visits between our peoples, and more exchanges between our students.

As we reflect on the tremendous progress we’ve made, today I’d like to talk about where we go from here. To ask how we can build upon the growth we’ve worked so hard to cultivate. The Comprehensive Partnership, launched by President Obama and President Sang in 2013, laid out a blueprint for how we can chart that course together.

I’d like to focus in on three areas of cooperation, all of which support our bilateral ties and underpin America’s overall rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. First, humanitarian cooperation; second, trade and economic cooperation; and third, defense and security cooperation.

The United States has a longstanding relationship with Vietnam on humanitarian issues, some of them the legacies of history. For many years now, we have worked with Vietnam to address the effects of Agent Orange, and to coordinate on issues related to the remains of missing Americans. Indeed, it was our joint effort on these issues that helped lay the foundation for the restoration of ties. And I know that Secretary Kerry, to this day, is proud of the progress we’ve been able to achieve, and how it has set the stage for the much broader partnership that we are seeing today.

We’ve also taken action to alleviate the humanitarian impacts of unexploded ordnance. Cluster munitions and other leftover remnants of war remain a humanitarian concern because they continue to endanger innocent men, women, and particularly children, long after soldiers have laid down their arms. Without a moment’s notice, these weapons can end or alter a life forever.

So our objective is clear. We want to see a Vietnam that is free from the impact of unexploded ordnance, period. And although this won’t happen overnight, with sustained focus and sustained investment, this is a goal we are committed to reaching.

That’s why, since 1993, even before we restored diplomatic ties, the United States began helping to remove unexploded ordnance from Vietnam. We are by far the largest international donor to this effort, and I just met with some of our NGO partners here in Vietnam who are working every day to implement these efforts on the ground. This year, the United States has more than doubled our financial commitment to Vietnam, with a special focus on Quang Tri Province. And next year, we expect to increase funding even more. In the United States, this work is supported across the political spectrum, because it’s the right thing to do.

Our efforts are far from finished, but by uprooting and disarming these deadly remnants of war, we are sowing a safer future for all Vietnamese.

Still, our humanitarian efforts with Vietnam extend far beyond unexploded ordnance. Since 2004, through the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, we’ve invested over $700 million to support the fight against HIV/AIDS in Vietnam.

Together with Vietnam and our other regional partners, we’re also working on humanitarian efforts throughout the region and the world.

We commend Vietnam for its first ever contribution to a United Nations peacekeeping effort, launched last year. The professionalism of the Vietnamese officers will enhance the effectiveness of the UN Mission in South Sudan. And we look forward to working with you to build on that initial commitment going forward, including by assisting with the construction of Vietnam’s peacekeeping training center, and by preparing your peacekeepers to deploy a military hospital and an engineering unit.

Even as we support humanitarian efforts in faraway places through peacekeeping, we also continue to work with our partners throughout ASEAN, including Vietnam, on disaster relief right here in Southeast Asia. The past few weeks have unfortunately provided yet another example of why this work is so important. When word came of the terrible Air Asia tragedy, the men and women aboard the USS Sampson and USS Fort Worth, along with many others from across the region, stopped what they were doing to join the search. That’s what good friends do. And going forward, we remain steadfast in our commitment to partnering with Vietnam and others in the region to be able to quickly and effectively contribute to disaster relief efforts.

Let me also take a moment to address another issue on our bilateral agenda: human rights. We strongly believe that societies that respect human rights flourish. As Secretary Kerry has said, “Greater openness is a great catalyst for a stronger and more prosperous society. And today Vietnam has a historic opportunity to prove that even further.” Whether it’s an open internet, a more open society, or freer exchange of ideas… the protection of human rights, which includes the freedom to freely express one’s views, is a step towards a stronger, more prosperous, and more inclusive Vietnam.

Over the past two decades, our countries have made great strides not only on our humanitarian agenda, but also on our economic agenda. Let me highlight just a few examples.

Twenty years ago, when we restored our relationship, our bilateral trade was just $451 million. Last year it reached almost $35 billion. During that same time period, the incomes of Vietnamese citizens have quadrupled.

Today, Vietnam exports more goods to the United States than to any other country. Our economic relationship has created thousands of jobs in Vietnam and in the United States.

In every year since normalization in 1995, Vietnam’s GDP has grown by over 4 percent. And in every year since 2000, it has grown by over 5 percent.

And Vietnam’s future looks just as promising, thanks to growing exports, increased tourism here in Vietnam, and a young, vibrant population – where over 40 percent of your people are under the age of 25. Walking along the streets of Hanoi, the youth and energy and promise of Vietnam’s future is palpable.

That brings me to the second area where we can deepen our cooperation this year: the economy and trade. As President Sang said when he visited Washington, DC in July 2013, “Economic trade ties continue to stay at the heart of bilateral relations, serving both as the cornerstone of, and an engine for the overall relationship.”

In 2015, the most important thing we can do to build on this economic progress is to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

TPP would provide the United States, Vietnam, and ten other member states a level playing field to compete in markets that together account for almost 40 percent of global GDP. It would set high standards on labor and the environment, and it would open up new markets for American goods and for Vietnamese goods. Seizing this moment, this year, is an opportunity we should not miss.

The third area of cooperation, in security and defense, is what underpins our economic relationship, our humanitarian work, and our many other areas of cooperation.

The truth is that prosperity and security are inseparable.

With over half the world’s merchant tonnage flowing through the South China Sea; with over 15 million barrels of oil per day and over 100,000 vessels per year passing through the Strait of Malacca; security is essential to the free flow of trade and commerce in Southeast Asia.

And here’s where our cooperation can really make a difference, and where the 2011 Memorandum of Understanding for advancing our bilateral defense cooperation set an excellent foundation. Because all of our security cooperation – whether it’s helping to develop Vietnam’s coast guard, promoting access to sea lanes, countering piracy, promoting disaster response, improving maritime domain awareness in the region, upholding maritime security – all of these activities are designed to underpin our economic relationship.

Working with our regional partners to help them build up their capabilities – whether it’s Vietnam or the Philippines or Malaysia or Indonesia – is a net security benefit and a net economic benefit for the region.

Last year, as you know, Secretary Kerry announced an important revision to our bilateral arms sales policy. As part of the $32.5 million he announced in new regional maritime security assistance, $18 million of that was directed to Vietnam. That investment boosts our shared security, and the prospects for our shared economic growth. And in our dialogue over the past two days, we discussed more ways to help you secure your borders and waterways, and to deepen security in the region.

Our security cooperation is already paying dividends, but there is still more work to do. One area where we are seeing tension is in the South China Sea. We continue to support diplomatic efforts by ASEAN to manage these tensions, including the establishment of a binding Code of Conduct. And we do not hesitate to raise our concerns over these tensions at the highest of levels, including with Chinese leaders.

Our policy is clear. There must be one set of rules in the South China Sea. We believe in freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, which is crucial to economic growth. We share a vision where all parties pursue resolution of their territorial and maritime disputes through peaceful means, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Within the realm of security cooperation, we can also do more together to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We want to see every country adhere to international norms and obligations on weapons of mass destruction, while at the same time making available peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Going forward, our two countries can make strong contributions to counter regional and global proliferation threats.

A final topic in the security arena that is ripe for increased engagement is in the law enforcement and justice sector. We had an excellent conversation on this issue at our meetings here in Vietnam, where we highlighted the robust cooperation we’ve seen on investigations and law enforcement training programs. And we are committed to sustained engagement as Vietnam undertakes legislative efforts to implement its Penal and Criminal Procedure Codes.

As I said at the beginning of my remarks, these three broad areas of cooperation – humanitarian, economic, and security – don’t just build our bilateral ties. They also reinforce our overall rebalance to Asia.

I know that with the many crises unfolding across the world, in the Middle East, in Ukraine, and elsewhere, there are some who wonder whether the United States is still committed to the Asia rebalance. Let me answer that in one word: Yes. We are. President Obama is committed to it. Secretary Kerry is committed to it. I’m committed to it.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. The vast array of ways that we are working together, with you and our many friends throughout the Asia-Pacific – those actions, rather than these words, show that the rebalance is real.

Broadening and deepening our partnership with Vietnam is a critical pillar of the rebalance. And this year holds so much promise and possibility for us to make progress, and it’s our job now to turn those possibilities into action.

Twenty years ago, when President Clinton announced a new direction in our relationship, he reflected on the past but said, “Let the future be our destination.”

So let us continue to work together on these issues – on peacekeeping, unexploded ordnance, and human rights; on growing our trade and investment; and on building a more stable and secure Southeast Asia. So that in five or ten or twenty more years, when the young leaders here today are eating their fruit, they can think of the work we did this year to plant those seeds of cooperation… to build a more prosperous and more peaceful future.

Let me extend, on behalf of the American people, our warmest wishes as Tet approaches. To the future of U.S.-Vietnam relations, hung thinh va ben vung – full of prosperity and long-lasting.

Thank you very much. Cam on.