Ho Chi Minh City, Jan 18, 2015
Question 1: Could you assess Vietnam’s business environment? Do U.S. companies meet any obstacles in this market? What would they propose to change in the way of investment environment?
First of all, when you look at Southeast Asia, broadly, the United States is the number one investor. So, we have to look why the United States isn’t the number one investor in Vietnam. And I think that there are a couple of reasons. I think that we can become number one in the future, but we have to work seriously together in order to become number one. I think the Transpacific Partnership Agreement is going to give us tremendous opportunities to increase U.S. trade and investment (U.S. trade with and investment in) Vietnam. When I ask American businesses what else is important to them, they tell me they really want a level playing field; they really want respect for sanctity of contracts. They want fairness, transparency, and predictability. So, a couple of days ago, I spoke to the chairman of the people’s committee, and I said, look, we have a tremendous opportunity with TPP. This is what American investors are interested in. And I asked him, can we have a specific mechanism for talking to the people’s committee, so that we encounter obstacles, when there’s a problem that an American investor encounters here, he or she will have a specific place to go to resolve that problem. The chairman said “Yes, we can have that mechanism.” So I will follow up with him right away, and we will establish that mechanism. The good news is that since I was here before there are many more opportunities for having dialogue on these issues. There’s now the Vietnam Trade Facilitation Alliance, the Vietnam Business Forum. So there are more opportunities than there were before to have exchanges about how we can improve the trade and investment environment. And there’s much, much more trade and investment than there was back then. So now we’re talking about $30 billion a year, when before it was a very small number of business people here and a very small amount of trade. But I want us to keep growing that relationship and we have the tools to do it.
Question 2: I feel that you really like speaking Vietnamese. How do you practice your Vietnamese skills?
Well, I think it helped a lot. For one thing it means that I have a deep attachment to this country. Tinh cam sau sac. And I learned Vietnamese when I was still young, so now I can speak Vietnamese and I can understand Vietnamese, even though I still need to study, because Vietnamese is not easy. I think it also is that I made a lot of friends when I was here, and I was able to travel all over the country to many, many Vietnamese provinces. So, now starting out as ambassador, I have this basic understanding of Vietnam and I think that people know that I care about this country and I respect Vietnam’s history, I respect its culture, I respect its language, and I respect its people. So I think that gives me real opportunities to engage and help deepen the partnership, that our two presidents signed in 2013, in many areas, including strengthening ties between our peoples.
Question 3: What are the challenges to the new era of US-Vietnam relations compared to the year 1995, since the normalization of diplomatic ties? How we can make it deepen from now on?
Well there’s some, there are two kinds of ties between peoples. There are people-to-people ties and government-to-government ties. And then there’s a little bit of overlap between the two. One of the reasons that I’m down here this weekend is that we have deep educational ties and I want to see if we can’t make them even deeper. Already there are 16,500 Vietnamese students in the United States. We have a twenty year track record from the Fulbright Economic Teaching Program, teaching economics in an American style in Saigon. In the future, we would like to help create not only the best university in Vietnam, but the best new university in the world. That would be in Ho Chi Minh City, and that’s the Fulbright University of Vietnam. The U.S. Congress has decided this is really worth investing in, and is making a multi-million dollar investment and by the size of this investment you’ll see how serious the United States is about this educational relationship. I’ve already found that there’s interest by U.S. companies and individuals, and by Vietnamese companies and Vietnamese individuals in investing in this big, important project, which we believe will help strengthen educational ties between our two countries and strengthen the higher education system in Vietnam. So that’s a really important people-to-people, area for people-to-people ties. And also we have very strong ties in the fields of health, the environment, and science and technology that I think can be expanded and deepened much more.
These are not necessarily directed by our governments. In many cases it’s researchers who are working together. Or it’s health care workers or members of civil society who are working together. And our governments might provide some assistance and an initial push, but this goes beyond governments. We have an enormous asset that there are over two million people in the United States who are of Vietnamese origin. They are a huge resource for deepening the people-to-people relations between our two countries. On the government-to-government level, I think we have with the TPP and the ambition to have direct flights between our two countries, we have the opportunity to really strengthen the economic and commercial relationship between our two countries. It’s our companies that will make decisions based on whether they work together and be productive and be profitable. They’ll make decisions based on the environment that we, our two governments create. So then those ties will grow independent of government. And investors will make decisions independent of government, but those will strengthen the relationship. The commercial ties will strengthen the relationship in really, really important ways. Our governments have already made the decision to strengthen our security relationship. The partial lifting of the lethal weapons ban is one aspect of that strengthening, but also we’re doing more together in the areas of law enforcement, we’re working on humanitarian disaster relief together and search and rescue together. There’s a lot of potential in that security relationship. Then I think that there’s a lot of potential for us to work together in the field of governance. That means respectful dialogue about the rule of law and human rights. And respectful dialogue about transparency in governance and respectful exchange of ideas on how to govern our societies better. So I think there’s tremendous potential in all of areas to deepen the partnership. That’s why President Obama sent me here. He sent me here because he knows that I’m a friend of Vietnam and he knows that I will work as hard as I can to get rid of obstacles which would prevent the deepening of that relationship and I will work as hard sa I can in all of those areas to strengthen the ties between our two nations.
Question 4: Which change [surprised you the most] when you came back to Vietnam?
I think every time I’ve come back to Ho Chi Minh City, and I’ve been coming back to Ho Chi Minh City many times over the last almost 20 years, I’m always surprised by how dynamic it is. I’m always surprised at how new, and the growth and the excitement and the energy of people in Ho Chi Minh City. I’m also finding that in Hanoi. That there’s a lot of dynamism, there’s a lot of energy among young people in particular, and this country is much more prosperous than when I was here before. There’s a new airport in Hanoi, Noi Bai, and a new highway that gets to that airport. Infrastructure is better, and the shops are more prosperous. The food has always been good, but I would say that even restaurants are even better than what I remember from before.
But there’s so much energy, energy on-line. There are people who are exchanging ideas via the Internet in ways that they never could before. There weren’t so many people on Facebook before. So to me it feels that this country is progressing so many ways and its young people are full of high hopes and high expectations for the future. That is surprising and satisfying and makes me happy because I want, like so many Americans, like our President, our Secretary of State, we want Vietnam to be strong, prosperous, and independent, to respect the rule of law and human rights. We want Vietnam to succeed, and I feel the kind of energy that comes along with success now that I’m back.
Question 5: Do you think that the TPP negotiations can be concluded this year?
Well, for one thing, I am very confident about TPP. And I’m much more confident now than I was even a few months ago. We’ve just had a bilateral round of negotiations in Hanoi and our negotiators made a lot of progress. I’ve met with your leaders, your President, your Prime Minister and your Trade Minister and other leaders, and I believe there is a deep commitment to completing the TPP negotiations with the United States. I know for certain that U.S. leadership is committed to completing the TPP. I am confident and optimistic that the U.S. Senate will give the President trade promotion authority and after my time, my month here, I’m also confident that we’ll be able to complete our negotiations so that the President will be able to deliver TPP to the U.S. Congress this spring. We hope that there will be a vote on TPP this summer. The timing is a little bit unpredictable because our Congress will decide itself when it will take action, but the President wants to deliver the TPP to the Congress this spring. So I’m very optimistic about TPP. But I mentioned that there are some areas where we can see improvements that would help make them, help enable the U.S. to become the number one investor, the number one trading partner of Vietnam. I won’t repeat those, but I talked about transparency, fairness, predictability, and the sanctity of contracts. Those are all very important and will enable us to achieve our ambition for greatly strengthening our trade and investment partnership.
Question 6: Although the TPP negotiations have yet to be concluded, many companies from Asia are coming to Vietnam to prepare for the time when the agreement takes effect, but I don’t see any move from U.S. businesses?
I do. I do see moves in terms of preparation by U.S. investors. I see a lot of companies that see there are going to be some big opportunities as a result of TPP, especially in this country. You know that the economic experts believe that Vietnam is poised to benefit the most of all the 12 countries, Vietnam’s economy will benefit the most from TPP. I think Malaysia might be second. But Vietnam should be the number one biggest beneficiary from TPP. I’ve been hearing from a lot of U.S. companies that they have big plans for deepening their engagement. And I’ve heard of new companies that want to come to Vietnam because they think it’s becoming a more attractive place to invest and do business. So, the companies are coming to see me, and the companies are engaging with my team and they’re engaging with our team back in the United States. This is because they see big opportunities as a result of TPP. But they also see big opportunities as a result of progress that Vietnam has made on its own. And I think they see this TPP will enable a lot more to happen. You just have to look around this city to see that Vietnam is more prosperous. The policy of hoi nhap, the policy of integration, is already beginning to succeed. I think we have a responsibility to make sure it succeeds even more. Some companies are waiting to see what happens with TPP. Other companies are confident that this policy of, Vietnam’s policy of hoi nhap, policy of integration will continue and so they’re looking already at opportunities.
Question 7: What will the U.S. do to contribute to maintaining peace in the East Sea?
It’s not a new policy. We issue reports like this in many parts of the world where there are complex territorial issues to be resolved. It does not signal a new policy. What I think is important to explain is that there are three parts to the U.S. strategy in this region. One, a continued naval presence, a continued U.S. naval presence in the region. Two, continued support for international legal mechanisms so that territorial disputes can be resolved peacefully. In this regard, I would mention that when the Philippines took a case to the arbitral tribunal and later Vietnam filed a statement with that arbitral tribunal, those are ways of resorting to international legal mechanisms to resolve peacefully what are difficult territorial disputes. The United States doesn’t take the position on the merits of territorial disputes themselves. We don’t say we think that this belongs to one country or this belongs to another country, but we do care about the process. We want the process to be peaceful. We don’t want countries to take unilateral action. We don’t want countries to act in ways that are intimidating or that threaten the use of force or, worst of all, use force in a way to strengthen their position. We want countries to respect international law and adhere to international law. That’s part two. Part three is just as important. The United States is committed to strengthening the capacity of its partners. We have allies in the region, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Australia. We are committed to strengthening, helping them strengthen their capacities. We also have partners in the region. Important regional partners- India, Indonesia — and, increasingly, Vietnam. And with those partners, and specifically Vietnam, we stand ready to help them increase their capacity, especially in the maritime realm. So that we can keep the sea lanes free. My country has stood for freedom of the sea lanes, we’ve seen it as a vital interest for 238 years. This is not new. We believe very strongly that freedom of the sea lanes is in everyone’s interest, and it’s been a cornerstone of our foreign policy since United States was founded. Now in recent years, we also have increasing interest in the freedom of air passage. We consider that a vital interest to the United States. So when we can help our partners increase their capacity to defend themselves and be aware of what’s happening in the sea lanes and air lanes around their country, we’re ready to do that. We have powerful partnerships in this region and we want to strengthen those partnerships.
Question 8: What should you do to strengthen further the mil-to-mil relationship?
The key thing to understand here is that we are partners. We are respectful of the pace at which Vietnam wants to move that military relationship forward. So, right now we have a memorandum of understanding that focuses on five areas: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, search and rescue, maritime security, peacekeeping, and high-level dialogues. These are areas of cooperation that we’ve already agreed upon in the memorandum of understanding. We’re very proud of that memorandum of understanding and we’re very respectful of the pace at which Vietnam would like to proceed. So, we’ll decide in partnership how we’ll continue move forward in that area.
Question 9: What are the priorities in your term of office in Vietnam?
What are my priorities? I mentioned them already, but I’ll be very specific. Number one is strengthening the economic and trade relationship. That’s got to be number one because it’s the ballast, the steadying factor for everything that we do. That’s number one. Number two is to strengthen our cooperation in the field of governance, and I mentioned that as well. Number three is to strengthen our security ties. Number four is to enhance educational cooperation and educational exchange. And number five is enhanced cooperation in the fields of environment, science and technology, and health. I think when I presented them to you earlier, it was out of order, but those are the five priorities that I’ve laid out for the government of Vietnam and that my own government supports as the top priorities for deepening our partnership.
Question 10: Both the U.S. and Vietnam mutually acknowledge that this relationship is increasingly vital to national interests. However, there are so many things happening now which need Washington’s attention. Do you think there is any risk that US Government’s intention in Western Pacific [especially with regard South China Sea issues]can be compromised due to many factors?,
So, the United States is a big country. It has a lot of capacity. We can do more than one thing at a time. The commitment to rebalance to Asia is very serious. It’s from the top to the bottom of the United States government. Part of it is a commitment to peace in the region, and that means making a commitment, a security commitment, to this region. A big part of it is the prosperity agenda, and that means enhancing our commercial and economic ties with the nations in this region. At the center of that is the Transpacific Partnership. But, you know, it even goes beyond that. Because in all of the priorities that I just discussed, a lot of them are people-to-people, strengthening people-to-people ties. Figuring out ways to have more students go back and forth between our two countries, more teachers, more tourists go back and forth. More scientific exchanges, Vietnamese scientists and American scientists exchanging ideas. I think it’s too limiting to think [only about] what our governments can do together; and the potential is unlimited when you think what our people can do together.
Question 11: The United States has partially lifted a ban on lethal weapons sales to Vietnam. What have the two countries done and how long will the U.S. need to proceed before the full lifting of the ban?
That is really up to the leaders of Vietnam. We were very clear when the President made the decision to partially lift the lethal weapons ban that a full lifting of the lethal weapons ban would depend upon further progress in the area of respect for human rights. There’s been a lot of progress in the time I’ve been engaged in this relationship. I’ve seen a lot of changes over 20 years in the field of human rights. But there’s room for further progress, and I’ve had very respectful discussions with the leaders of Vietnam about where we most hope to see progress in this field. But the choice is really that of the leaders of Vietnam.
Question 12: Will the U.S. choose between economic interests with China and security for the South China Sea?
We don’t have to choose. Our relationship with China is very complex, and multi-faceted. We talk about every issue together. We have a very strong economic relationship. We have dialogues on every subject. It’s a complicated relationship which involves elements of cooperation and elements of competition. But it is not a mutually exclusive relationship at all and we, in this region, never would ask a country to make a choice between the United States and China. Countries in this region can have a strong relationship with the United States and a strong relationship with China. In fact a prosperous, stable China is in America’s interest. And I think it’s in the interest of all the nations in this region.
Question 13: Can you please be more specific on the measures to promote economic and trade ties between the two countries?
I talked a lot about TPP. That’s number one and I won’t talk about that any more. I only briefly mentioned the idea of direct flights. Now just think about it. If we had direct flights between Ho Chi Minh City and Los Angeles, for example, that would make it so much easier for business people to travel between our two countries. For tourists, for students, for professors, scientists, artists, all the people who are involved in people-to-people relationships would have an easier time. So, we are committed to working with Vietnam to achieve what’s called Category 1 status in terms of aviation safety, and world class security standards so that we can get to the point where we can have direct flights between our two countries. I think that will make an enormous difference. I will invest time and energy and talk to the leaders of Vietnam about that initiative. I believe if there is sufficient will on both sides that we can have direct flights between our two countries.
Also, I’ve been working with companies that are already here to remove obstacles to successfully doing business here. I’ve told the American business community that my door is always open to them. If they have a problem getting access to decision makers, or if they have problems with regulations or a lack of transparency or a lack or predictability, they can come to the embassy and we will try to help. They know their businesses better than I do, so I will never tell them what they should be doing in their businesses. But I will help them in any way I can to be successful here. Not only because it’s good for their businesses, but that it’s good for our relationship. If they succeed here, then other businesses will want to engage with Vietnam. And Vietnam will become more prosperous and that’s in America’s interest.
Question 14: Last year, Secretary Hagel cancelled his planned trip to Vietnam. Will we see a visit by Secretary Carter anytime soon when he’s confirmed by the Senate?
Your question acknowledges that he is not yet confirmed. The confirmation sometimes takes some time. I hope he’ll come here sometime after he’s confirmed. What I am confident about is that we will have a lot of high-level visits this year. This is the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries. We’ll have a lot of high-level visits in both directions in order to strengthen our relationship because so many people in both governments have high ambitions for this relationship and see huge potential and see the possibility for this year being a watershed year in our relationship. So, expect a lot of travel back and forth between the United States and Vietnam this year.
Question 15: There have been reports of Daniel Russell extending an invitation from your leader to our Party Secretary General to visit the US in the summer or this fall this year. Can you confirm also give us an update on that visit?
What I can do is say I’m really confident that there will be high level visits involving very senior leaders from Vietnam and very senior leaders from the United States visiting each other’s countries and that’s good news for our relationship. Because those high-level visits set the tone for the kind of cooperation we want to have in all the fields that I mentioned. Whenever you have a high-level visitor going to either country, you can keep moving, you can keep making progress in each of all those areas. You can increase the number of accomplishments, joint accomplishments that we have between our two countries.