U.S.-Vietnam Relations – Today and Tomorrow

Ambassador Osius' Remarks at Stanford University: "U.S.-Vietnam Relations - Today and Tomorrow"

Friday, September 30, 2016
Stanford University

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is an honor to address you today and to discuss with you the future of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship.

In 1995, our two countries made a bold choice to strike out a grand new journey together.  Twenty years ago, I had the privilege of serving in Vietnam as we took our first steps along a path toward the vibrant and productive relationship we have today.

I can testify first-hand as to how far we have come together.

Last year we marked a major milestone on our journey when we celebrated 20 years of diplomatic relations and solidified our Comprehensive Partnership.  Today, record numbers of our young people cross oceans to study at each other’s universities and explore each other’s cultures. U.S. businesses are engaging more and more with Vietnam while two-way trade has increased from $500 million to $45 billion annually.

The ties we enjoy today would have been unimaginable two decades ago, and we ought to be proud of that progress.  The future of our Comprehensive Partnership is brighter now than it has ever been.

But our journey isn’t over; we still have a great distance to cover.  The celebrated philosopher Lê Quý Đôn once wrote: “Phi nông bất ổn. Phi công bất phú. Phi thương bất hoạt. Phi trí bất hưng.” “Without farmers: no stability; without industry: no wealth; without traders: no flexibility; without scholars: no prosperity.”  He understood that society must be built upon a broad foundation where all are engaged, and where all are able to lend their talents to a larger success.

This insight remains as true today as it ever was.  And in that spirit, this May President Obama and President Tran Dai Quang laid out in a Joint Statement an ambitious and wide-ranging plan to further strengthen our growing partnership.  We set ourselves comprehensive goals ranging from removing barriers to trade and improving security cooperation, to partnering on religious freedom and fostering people-to-people ties.  We pledged to look beyond our own borders and tackle global challenges like climate change and illegal wildlife trafficking.  It was an important demonstration of our two governments’ mutual commitment to invest in a peaceful, sustainable and more prosperous future for both of our nations.

Today I reaffirm the commitment of the United States to reaching those goals.

But we can’t be satisfied merely with statements.  Setting goals is laudable, and a necessary first step.  But these goals must be implemented; we must make our leaders’ vision a reality.  There will be obstacles to overcome, but I firmly believe that Vietnamese and Americans together can translate commitments into action.  Vietnam is already one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.

In a remarkably short time, Vietnam has risen to join the ranks of middle income countries and built a thriving middle class by opening its markets to the outside world, allowing the free exchange of ideas on Facebook, and creating a young and entrepreneurial work force.

Everywhere I travel in Vietnam I can see the dividends that this progress has paid: the millions who have been lifted out of poverty; the youth who are so optimistic about their futures; the communities that have been made safer from the impact of climate change.

In our Joint Statement, both nations committed to expanding and deepening our economic cooperation.

And that is already happening.

In fact, between January and July of this year, U.S. exports to Vietnam are up 44%.  Vietnam’s exports to the United States are also up 12%, putting the bilateral trade increase at 17%.  Out of America’s 50 largest export markets, only three show double digit growth.  And, of these, Vietnam is the largest market.

Looking ahead, the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be the cornerstone of this effort.  Full implementation of TPP will allow Vietnam to grow faster and move more of its people into the middle class.  It will reduce Vietnam’s dependence on any single market.  It will strengthen connections not just with the United States, but with Vietnam’s neighbors within the region and with new partners across the ocean.

But we must recognize that there is hard work that still needs to be done in Vietnam before it is able to take full advantage of all of these new opportunities.  Vietnam has taken steps to reform its system of State Owned Enterprises, but many inefficiencies remain.  Vietnam must create the space in its economy for Small and Medium-sized Enterprises to compete in order for the Vietnamese economy to reach its full potential.  Customs regimes must be modernized to meet international standards.

Foreign firms must believe that their intellectual property will be protected so they can bring their technology to Vietnam. They must know that fair labor practices will be universally enforced and that their competitors will have to meet the same environmental standards that they do.  They must understand that Vietnam’s laws will be fairly, transparently, and uniformly applied.

I’m happy to say that Vietnam is poised to make tremendous strides toward each of these goals.  And the benefits have begun to roll in as investors and U.S. businesses take note.  American industry is optimistic about Vietnam, and our business leaders are watching closely to see if reforms are put into practice. We’re not there yet, but I say to you today that the United States benefits as Vietnam becomes a strong partner with a thriving and sustainable economy.

And while economic coordination is critical to the future of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship, the deeper partnership we strive for must reach beyond cultivating growth and creating opportunities for business and trade.

If we seek to build a truly Comprehensive Partnership – one where we come together not just as governments but as nations – we must also create opportunities for people-to-people exchanges.  Mark Twain once wrote: “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”  He meant that nothing builds trust and eliminates misconceptions between people more than exploring each other’s cultures first-hand.

It is my firm belief that no exchanges are more effective at eliminating prejudice and creating social bonds than those that invest in the education of our young people.  That’s why I am so excited about the imminent launch of two major education initiatives: Peace Corps in Vietnam and Fulbright University Vietnam.

When the Peace Corps mission opens officially in the near future, it will bring to Vietnam some of the best that America has to offer.  Bright, energetic, and dedicated volunteers who, as native speakers of English, will be a unique resource for Vietnam’s diligent students.

And Fulbright University, the first private, nonprofit American-style Vietnamese University, will demonstrate the value of a transdisciplinary approach and academic freedom.

I hope that these will be only the first of many similar exchanges that will forge lifelong bonds between or countries’ youth.   English language training and increased educational opportunities will not only help respond to the increasing global demand for a skilled workforce.  They will also support Vietnam’s growing prominence in regional institutions, including the United Nations, APEC, ASEAN, and the ASEAN Economic Community.

Vietnam’s leaders have suggested that we should expand our partnership beyond the current bilateral cooperation into regional and global collaboration.

Working through international institutions is an invaluable means of building trust.  As President Obama reminded us in May, the international order upon which our mutual security and prosperity depends is rooted in rules and norms that are shared within these institutions.

These multilateral fora are also critical avenues to make progress on some of our most pressing concerns, including climate change, regional and global health issues, and wildlife trafficking.

We will continue to work together to bolster these institutions to ensure they remain engines driving peaceful resolutions to conflict that respect the sovereignty of all members.

We also committed in our Joint Statement to strengthening defense cooperation and building more trust between our men and women in uniform.  President Obama’s decision to fully lift the ban on defense sales will allow Vietnam greater access to the tools it needs to ensure your security.  I look forward to expanding our work enhancing Vietnam’s maritime capabilities and partnering on delivery of humanitarian aid in times of disaster.

The United States and Vietnam normalized relations in 1995, and we have come so far since then.  But reconciliation for all–including Vietnamese-Americans profoundly impacted by the past–remains incomplete. Burdened by profoundly painful memorie‎s, these Americans have not engaged with the new, increasingly integrated Vietnam that has emerged in recent years. They have remained estranged, which has divided the Vietnamese-American community and limited the potential of the bilateral relationship.

But we hear‎, and I believe, that we have an opportunity to change this dynamic.  Increasingly, those who suffered in both countries have told us that the time has come to move beyond divisions, to honor the memories of those who fell on both sides, and then move forward in a spirit of respect and reconciliation.

The U.S. Mission to Vietnam is committed to supporting engagement by the diaspora community with the people and leaders of Vietnam. We are ready to support frank dialogue with the goal of facilitating the healing process. Such a process would require building trust on both sides, a difficult but necessary task if we are to close a difficult chapter of the past with honor and turn our focus to the future.

I believe it is the right thing to do, and it would provide tremendous benefits by reuniting families and friends, increasing investment, spurring tourism, and more.  I look forward to continuing this conversation during my time here and upon my return to Vietnam.

Finally, as we build our partnership in the areas I’ve just discussed, we must also not be afraid to examine those issues on which we still have differences.  Partners speak the truth to each other, and share concerns even when it may be difficult to do so.  We do this with all of our partners the world over, because we know that no country has found the perfect formula.  I include the United States in this, because we certainly have our own failings, some of which we have overcome, but many of which we still struggle with today.

However, I believe the United States has learned that growth, progress, peace, and stability are all best served by allowing all voices to be heard.

A few days ago, speaking at the Ho Chi Minh Academy, where Party cadres are trained, I said this: Vietnam will achieve its greatest potential only when civil society can enjoy greater freedoms to peacefully organize, freely exchange views on the Internet and social media, and participate in policymaking.

The United States does not seek to dictate terms or to impose our beliefs on any of our partners.  Indeed, the fundamental principle underlying the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is mutual respect for sovereignty and for different political systems.

But I have invited Vietnam’s leaders, especially when seeking answers to difficult questions, to look to the United States as a resource.

As we grew into the nation that we now are, we struggled with many of the same challenges, and I believe we can share the lessons we have learned.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the United States and Vietnam are today at a defining moment in our great journey together.

And as with any other such moment, we now have a choice.

We can choose to meet the expectations of those who doubt our destiny; those who say that our aspirations are too great, our political will too weak, or our mutual interest in deepening our bilateral relationship too much a passing geopolitical convenience.

We can take these goals we have set for ourselves and call them too difficult, put them off for another time, and wait for them to be forgotten.  We can fail, and say it was inevitable.

Or we can choose to do better.

We can choose to be statesmen, to confound the expectations of the cynics, and let our partnership be an example for the world.

We can create bonds through open trade, swift travel, and honest exchange.

We can put in the work and show that two countries can, in the space of just one generation, use our shared history to develop understanding, friendship, and collaboration.

Ladies and gentlemen, my friends and colleagues, let us show the world that, together, nothing is impossible.

Thank you very much.