Ambassador Osius’s Op-Ed on the 20th Anniversary of U.S. – Vietnam Relations

National identity is built, in part, upon myths, upon folklore.  These stories create powerful, deep, emotional, and culturally relevant connections to the lands in which we dwell.  One of my favorite Vietnamese myths is the story about the Vietnamese people’s creation as the children of two winged creatures:  the dragon from the sea and the fairy from the mountains.  As a matter of fact, the term “dat nuoc” beautifully captures this lofty idea.  Vietnam is not alone in cherishing national myths.  We in the United States also have national folklore.  You are probably aware of the image of the lone cowboy riding on the range.  This idea encapsulates the rugged individualism for which the United States is known.  In reality, of course, the United States – like Vietnam – values families and communities along with the individual, but the lasting power in that image captures Americans’ hearts, speaks to our identity and connects us to our country’s history.  While our founding folklore grounds us in our individual histories, the United States and Vietnam share a desire for a constructive and enduring partnership suitable for the modern, globalized world.

This year, we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the normalization of relations between Vietnam and the United States.  This still-young relationship was significantly strengthened, broadened and deepened by the Comprehensive Partnership jointly declared by President Sang and President Obama in July 2013.  Their statement expresses our underlying commitment and forms the touchstone of future United States-Vietnam relations as they mature from an energetic and eager, but inexperienced phase into a long-lasting partnership solidly grounded in the mutual respect and frank and fruitful interactions typical between friends.

Already, our economic relationship has been a success story.  When we normalized diplomatic relations in 1995, our annual bilateral trade was just $451 million; in 2014 it approached $35 billion.  As a direct result, the incomes of Vietnamese citizens have quadrupled.  And we have embarked on the next step to increase trade and further integrate Vietnam into the global economy: the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade and investment agreement.  The United States and Vietnam are firmly committed to concluding the TPP this year, providing its 12 members nearly-free access to markets that collectively account for almost 40 percent of global GDP and about one-third of all world trade.

A peaceful, prosperous, and stable Asia-Pacific region is vital to U.S. interests, and we are committed to the future of the region.  We coordinate closely with the Vietnamese government on a wide range of issues, including climate change, water and food security, human trafficking, and the illegal wildlife trade.  We cooperate in the areas of maritime security, focusing on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, search and rescue efforts, and on UN peacekeeping operations.  Together, we have done much to address global health threats and build sustainable public health systems to ensure global health security.  For example, since 2004, the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has provided almost $600 million to support the fight against HIV/AIDS in Vietnam.  Also, we have contributed more than $54 million to help Vietnamese with disabilities, regardless of cause.  We have worked together to protect the environment to improve the well-being of all and will soon launch new programs to promote low-carbon, climate change-resilient growth in Vietnam through assistance on energy, forestry, and adaptation planning.  Together with other international partners, we have worked to help Vietnam improve its education system, and especially to boost people-to-people ties through Fulbright scholarships, university linkages and other education and cultural exchanges.  This effort will soon get a significant boost with the establishment of the Fulbright University of Vietnam, the country’s first American-style private, non-profit university.

And while the United States has done much for the future of the bilateral relationship, we are also mindful of the past.  We have provided more than $38 million so far in assistance to address the problem of unexploded ordnance and will continue our on-going dioxin remediation efforts in Da Nang.

Building ever higher upon this impressive foundation laid over 20 years, we hope to construct the next levels of our Comprehensive Partnership based on our common desire for peace and stability throughout the Asia-Pacific region.  Because we share so many goals, our partnership offers great potential.

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted recently on the occasion of Vietnam’s National Day, he “cannot think of two countries that have worked harder to bring themselves together and provide a better future for [their] people.”  The American people stand with the people of Vietnam as they, like their dragon and fairy ancestors, soar higher and farther and shine even brighter as one of Asia’s great economic success stories.  In addition to rugged individualism,  cowboys are known for being reliable and fiercely loyal friends.  A Vietnam that is strong, prosperous and independent and that respects human rights and the rule of law will not only best contribute to regional peace and stability and allow its people to reach their fullest potential, but will always have a reliable friend and partner in the United States.