Ambassador Kritenbrink Remarks: Fulbright University of Vietnam Conference

Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Fulbright University of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City

Ladies and gentlemen, Vice Foreign Minister Ngoc, distinguished guests, good morning.

It’s a tremendous honor to speak to you today, here at the Fulbright University of Vietnam Conference, and to participate with an institution that represents the future of Vietnamese higher education.

And it’s even more of an honor for me to address you in my new role as the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, and during my first trip to Ho Chi Minh City in this position.

Since it’s my first appearance here, I’d like to quickly recognize a few of you in the audience tonight: [ distinguished guests]

While I might be a “new” face to some of you, the relationship between our countries hardly needs an introduction – Vietnam is our most dynamic partner in the region, and one of our fastest growing relationships in the world.

Just a couple of months ago, I got to experience first-hand just how quickly the relationship is moving. Only days after I presented my credentials to President Quang, I welcomed President Trump as he arrived to Vietnam for his historic visit…and let me assure you of two things after meeting him in person: first, like me, the President believes 100% in Vietnam. And second, he’s ready to get to work to make this partnership one of our strongest in the world.

Now that I’ve had a chance to catch my breath, get my family moved into our new home, and begin the day-to-day business of diplomacy, I’d like to take a moment out of our morning together to talk about just how remarkable the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is – our shared values, challenges that lie before us, and the way ahead.

You heard it from President Trump in November, and I’ve emphasized this point this since my confirmation hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Vietnam represents one of the United States’ most important partnerships, not just in the Indo-Pacific, but the world – and as a career diplomat, I believe that wholeheartedly.

Our two nations share a remarkable history: after years of war and hardship, together we have forged a strong and lasting Comprehensive Partnership – one that benefits not just us, but the entire Indo-Pacific region.

The United States is deeply invested in Vietnam’s success.

As a nation, we are committed to supporting a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam – one that makes positive, lasting contributions to free and fair trade, human rights, and promotes the rule of law.

I’ve spent my entire professional life in diplomacy, and I feel as if I spent all those years – almost all of them here in Asia – preparing for this moment in our shared history.

A moment ago, I mentioned my Senate confirmation hearings. During my testimony, I set out five priorities – five areas of shared, vital interest to both the United States and Vietnam.

Security: we want to help Vietnam build its capacity to become an active and responsible contributor to regional and global security: Efforts to strictly enforce DPRK sanctions, Increased cooperation in South China Sea, Regional counter-terrorism efforts.

Trade and Investment: over the last two decades, bilateral trade has grown exponentially, from $451 million in 1995 to $52 billion in 2016. Last year, Vietnam was our fastest-growing export market. U.S. investment has grown to $1.5 billion, but there are still some challenges that I’ll speak to shortly.

Human Rights: a key priority for the United States, and for me. While long-term trends regarding religious freedom and human rights are positive, recent developments over the past 18 months have been troubling. With frank and open dialogue, I believe we can make the progress necessary on human rights in order for our relationship to reach its full potential

People-to-People ties: I can’t think of a better setting than here at the Fulbright University Vietnam conference to demonstrate this. Over 22,000 Vietnamese are studying in U.S. colleges and universities Over 80,000 Vietnamese visited the United States last year, and over half a million Americans came to visit Vietnam. These exchanges help foster mutual understanding, forge lasting friendships, and strengthen both our economies.

Humanitarian and War Legacy Issues: I believe this to be not just the cornerstone of our relationship, but perhaps the strongest testament to the power of reconciliation between former adversaries. Providing the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel is a solemn obligation. Our shared work on this created a path towards the normalization of our bilateral relationship. This humanitarian work continues today and must not stop until it is completed. In addition, we are addressing the legacies of war, to include working together to mitigate the threat of unexploded ordnance and to clean up dioxin hotspots. I believe that as we continue to heal the wounds of war, our trust and friendship will grow even stronger.

In true friendships, we know that we don’t have to hesitate to discuss challenges or concerns with one another.

We realize that whenever there is a serious issue, it’s more important to both sides to be willing to face some discomfort, even some anger, in order to safeguard each other’s well-being.

And because I have such faith in this friendship of ours, I feel that we can discuss important issues in clear, frank terms. I know that both our governments, both business communities understand the importance of meaningful business reforms, particularly fair and transparent regulations and tax policy – and the danger that Vietnam could be left behind without them. Regarding trade, there is serious concern in Washington regarding Decree 116 and the impact it is already having on the U.S. auto industry. And I’ve already mentioned human rights: President Trump himself made clear that progress is a top priority for the United States.

These are daunting issues, and there will certainly be more of them…but I’ve already witnessed the strength of the bonds between our nations, and the friendships and relationships that define them. Working together, I have no doubt that we can overcome these challenges.

And in facing those shared challenges, I can’t think of a better place to start those discussions than right here at Fulbright University Vietnam.

Fulbright University Vietnam will be a shining example for educating and developing Vietnamese youth, equipping them with a world-class education developed from open inquiry, research, and critical analysis, to carry forward the future of our two countries’ relationship.

So today, as I wrap up my remarks this morning, I’d ask one simple thing, particularly to our younger attendees today. Look to the person on your left, and your right. You’re sitting next to the future of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship.

Long after most of today’s speakers have retired (including myself), all of you in the audience, students and alumni, the skills you hone and the friendships you establish here will continue to guide the United States and Vietnam on this path of ours.

And together, I believe that we can overcome any obstacle set before us.

I think I’m running out of time, so I’d like to conclude with this: my promise to work with everyone here today to continue to strengthen the U.S.- Vietnam relationship, and to continue to welcome the candid, straightforward talk that is vital to protecting it.

Most of you attending and participating in today’s conference have decades of experience regarding the politics and business of Vietnam, and I hope to learn from you and draw on your insights.

In turn, you can count on me to always have my door and ears open to your ideas, opinions, and guidance.

Thank you for your time and attention this morning. I look forward to the day’s discussions, and I welcome the shared work that lies ahead of us.