An Op-Ed by Ambassador Ted Osius
March 1, 2016
In January 2016, twenty American and Vietnamese cyclists embarked on what we called Hành Trinh Mới—a new journey—from Hà Nội to Huế. Our journey focused on the future: educating the next generation, tackling health and environmental challenges, and celebrating entrepreneurship and innovation. We also tried to learn more about Việt Nam’s history and to reconcile our shared past, even its most painful aspects.
Vạn sự khởi đầu nan. A trusted friend on the ride explained that this common proverb means “Everything begins with difficulty.” We began our bike ride in pouring rain, on what we were told was the coldest day in Hà Nội in forty years! But we faced these difficulties as a team. Vietnamese, American, old, young, strong or less strong—it didn’t matter. Everyone pitched in; everyone lent a hand to teammates. We respected each other and the friends we made along the route. That made the ride easier—and more fun—despite the uncooperative weather.
Our ride was the final event of a year of celebration: the twentieth anniversary of United States-Vietnam diplomatic relations. It was a banner year. An historic trip to the United States by General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong deepened our partnership, and the conclusion of negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement set us on a path for a prosperous shared future. This year promises to be equally significant, with a visit in May by President Barack Obama to Vietnam and potential ratification of TPP by both our legislatures.
We should take full advantage of our current momentum and build the foundation for a long and meaningful partnership. In Washington, the General Secretary said that building trust is key to deepening our friendship, and that we build trust by expanding our contacts and doing, together, things that matter. I couldn’t agree more. The time is ripe to discuss some specific ways we can enhance trust and, together, make Vietnam stronger and more prosperous, enhance the region’s stability, and contribute globally to a cleaner, healthier future for the world.
What we can do together in 2016
A substantive visit by President Obama will shine a spotlight on today’s Vietnam: young, innovative, and an increasingly vital economic and diplomatic partner for the United States. At the 12th Party Congress, Vietnam’s leaders confirmed the nation’s commitment to enhanced international integration, including through free trade agreements. President Obama’s visit will provide an opportunity for Vietnam to showcase this dynamism and engagement with the world. Young Vietnamese are Facebook savvy and keen for a U.S.-style education; a growing middle class is increasing demand for goods and services; and Vietnam’s entrepreneurs are poised to help the nation prosper.
The President’s visit will also show how our two nations have moved past our painful history to forge a shared future that advances stability, prosperity, and people-to-people ties, making an example to the world of how former adversaries can become friends and partners.
Bilateral cooperation to regional and global collaboration
We have already begun making important investments in the future: in educating and training Vietnam’s young people and workforce; in infrastructure development; and by carrying out a good-faith accounting of the past. We can build on these investments this year in the following concrete ways:
- Education. Fulbright University Vietnam, set to start classes this year, will be a Vietnamese university built on an American model that will shape future Vietnamese leaders for generations to come. Fulbright is one of several significant new partnerships of American and Vietnamese universities and the corporate sector, which will accelerate reform of higher education in Vietnam for the innovation economy the country needs for continued growth. The outlook is also positive for a Peace Corps program in Vietnam, which would provide much needed English language training and expand people-to-people ties across the country.
- Investment and trade. Confident that TPP will enter into force, U.S. companies are already pursuing investment and trade opportunities in aviation, energy, “smart” cities, and healthcare. To facilitate these and future development projects, the U.S. is bringing together private and public sector engagement to create jobs in both countries by building needed infrastructure in Vietnam. In a separate initiative, direct commercial flights between the U.S. and Vietnam will multiply the flow of tourism, commerce, and education exchange between the two countries. Vietnam is poised to achieve a “Category 1” safety rating from the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority —a key prerequisite for direct flights.
- New embassies. To meet the needs of our expanding partnership, both countries must build world-class, secure embassies in Hanoi and Washington, DC.
- Overcoming the past. Even before we reestablished relations, Vietnam and the United States worked together to help find those missing from the war, and we continue to do so today. The United States remains similarly committed to dioxin cleanup and the cleanup of unexploded munitions. The successes of our collaboration with Vietnam’s armed forces in Danang and Quang Tri can be replicated elsewhere. These accomplishments will demonstrate both countries’ commitment to closing a painful chapter in our past and opening the door to a safer, healthier, and more prosperous future for our two peoples.
Over the course of 2015, we began to move our cooperation beyond bilateral cooperation to look at how we can collaborate, regionally and globally. Here are some ways:
- Implementing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. TPP shows the world that a less developed country can benefit from joining a high-standard trade agreement. Other nations in the region now want to join as well. The United States is committed to partnering with Vietnam as it prepares to carry out its TPP commitments. While these commitments, including on labor rights, will be challenging, Vietnam has a strong track record, having fulfilled pledges made in the bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. in 2000 and its 2007 entry into the World Trade Organization.
- Climate and environmental protection. If we can step up our collaboration and create a bold, five-year partnership on climate change, that would enable Vietnam – one of the top five countries most vulnerable to climate change — to further reduce emissions and prepare for inevitable challenges. We can also build on last year’s successful “Buy No Rhino” campaign and develop a new partnership to combat wildlife trafficking. In collaboration with Vietnam’s law enforcement agencies, we can help each other strengthen biodiversity protection and spur greater collaboration against wildlife trafficking.
- Global health security. Already a leader in pursuing the Global Health Security Agenda, Vietnam has been highly effective in monitoring, detecting, and responding to disease outbreaks. With deeper international partnerships and enhanced disease monitoring capacity, Vietnam will show what can be achieved with skill and political will.
- Defense cooperation. A steady expansion of maritime security, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, and peacekeeping cooperation, along with efforts to keep the world safe from WMD proliferation, will enhance regional stability and fulfill our shared commitments to promoting a rules-based international order. With a framework for cooperation, together we will strive to ensure that disputes are settled peacefully and tensions are managed diplomatically.
Increasing partnership and dialogue on human rights
Protection of human rights was at the core of the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago. Since then, the promotion of respect for human rights has been a principal tenet of U.S. foreign policy. Countries that respect human rights better contribute to regional peace and security, promote the rule of law, effectively combat crime and corruption, and enable their citizens to reach their full potential. We seek to strengthen our collaboration and dialogue on these issues because the United States supports a successful Vietnam—a Vietnam that is strong, prosperous, and independent. Our respective constitutions guarantee the protection of fundamental rights such as free speech, the right to assembly, and freedom of the press. Indeed, they are pre-conditions for achieving long-term economic prosperity and political security. In recent years we have shown that we can talk about these complicated issues in a way that finds common ground in a spirit of mutual respect.
Vietnam’s decision to pursue comprehensive international integration, including through Free Trade Agreements, could dramatically improve Vietnam’s economy. However, the U.S. Congress (and the European Parliament) will have a say in this process. Continued reports of harassment and detention of peaceful human rights advocates have raised serious concerns among Congressional leaders. As a friend of Vietnam, I urge its leaders to recognize what is at stake. While TPP is primarily a trade agreement, some members of Congress have said they will weigh Vietnam’s human rights record when they vote, and the vote may be a close one. Meaningful progress on human rights in Vietnam will help facilitate quicker ratification of TPP.
While our countries evolved from different historical, cultural, and socio-economic traditions, as President Obama and General Secretary Trong made clear, we respect each other’s political systems, independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. And when Americans express concern about arrests or harassment of human rights and labor activists, we do so with a measure of humility, knowing that the United States also faces challenges. But it is clear that Americans and Vietnamese alike believe in the fundamental principles of equality, freedom, and justice. So we must continue on this path of increased collaboration and dialogue, because only by demonstrable progress on human rights can we achieve the full potential of our partnership.
What our relationship can look like twenty years from now
If we can succeed—and with wise leadership I am confident that we can—imagine what our relationship will look like in the future. If we continue to deepen our partnership, twenty years from now young people from our two nations will, together, innovate and spearhead new business and investment opportunities that help fuel an ever-prosperous Vietnam. They will freely exchange ideas that will help them improve their businesses, their communities, and their governments. If we continue to cooperate, then our families, businessmen, and tourists will easily hop on planes to fly directly between our major cities. If we continue on the path we’re on now, the United States will soon become the top investor in Vietnam. Twenty years from now, if we continue our cooperation in education, Vietnamese children born this year will graduate with a world-class degree from Fulbright University and will choose among multiple job offers from employers around the world seeking the best and the brightest.
If we continue to work together on human rights and to support Vietnam’s goal of bringing laws into alignment with its constitution and international commitments, then the talents, innovation, and ideas of our peoples will be unleashed and intertwined. If we continue building habits of collaboration and cooperation in this region and the world, then the relationships among our most promising leaders will be colored not by the aftermath of war but by the palette of consistent and positive engagement. It will be a deep, respectful partnership.
If we continue to collaborate to resolve the world’s most difficult challenges, then our scientists and policymakers will work hand-in-hand to make the goals of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement a reality. Together, they will prevent pandemics and promote better health for Americans and Vietnamese. We’ll make a powerful example of how our bilateral relationship can pay dividends on a global scale. If we continue on this path, we’ll preserve peace in the South China Sea and make peace in other parts of the world. Vietnam’s peacekeepers will serve alongside American ones, and our two militaries will be ready to respond to natural disasters or humanitarian crises and protect the lives and safety of those in harm’s way.
The U.S. goal for the relationship is clear and consistent: We support a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam that promotes the rule of law and human rights. Each pillar of the Comprehensive Partnership, launched by Presidents Obama and Sang in 2013, reflects this broad commitment. It’s our job, therefore, to sustain and nourish it. It’s not a foregone conclusion that we will succeed. Vạn sự khởi đầu nan. Our countries have certainly faced difficulty before, but the lessons of the past can help guide us through any challenge and help us build a lasting partnership. Respecting and helping one another, we’ll get much, much farther. And, with hard work and a vision for the future, nothing is impossible in U.S.-Vietnam relations.