AmCham Governors, business leaders, distinguished guests…good evening.
I’m delighted to be here to recognize AMCHAM for another year of excellent support to U.S. business in Vietnam…as well as for AMCHAM’s many years of hard work as our partner in building the U.S.–Vietnam relationship.
It’s great to see so many familiar faces out there. I’ve met and worked with many of you these past several months, but this is my first opportunity to address all of AMCHAM together in one place. I arrived as ambassador to Vietnam a few days too late for last year’s event. Fortunately, I arrived with perfect timing to kick-off the 20th anniversary of U.S.-Vietnam relations.
And what a remarkable anniversary it has been.
Our two governments have taken full advantage of this year’s celebratory spirit to advance our relationship at the highest levels. Over the past 12 months, we exchanged visits from seven Politburo members to the United States and six U.S. cabinet members to Vietnam. In July I had the honor to witness the historic Oval Office meeting between President Obama and General Secretary Trong.
We capped off the year with the successful negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership—a landmark free-trade platform that will strengthen commerce from Hanoi and Tokyo to Santiago and Washington, supporting innovation and creating jobs in the process.
As most of you know, TPP is more than a trade agreement. It builds an unprecedented platform for raising standards in environmental sustainability, in health care, in education, and in children’s, minorities’, and workers’ rights. It even smooths the way for cooperation on tricky issues like maritime security and peacekeeping, by creating a comfort zone for multilateral endeavors and a lens to see shared interests and responsibilities in the Pacific Rim.
In short, TPP will be the primary mechanism driving our countries’ comprehensive partnership over the next 20 years and beyond.
Now for this audience, I don’t need to make my pitch about how U.S. business and investment are the bedrock of the larger bilateral relationship. When I first came to Vietnam as a young political officer in 1995, AMCHAM Hanoi was already up and running. My good friend Peter Ryder was one of the founding members and a board member at the time. The membership list included just a handful of companies.
Today, AMCHAM Vietnam has over 650 members, including many of America’s most recognizable brands and most significant industrial players. These companies have invested billions here, integrating Vietnam into global supply chains, creating quality jobs for Vietnamese workers, and opening new markets in both countries. In the process, bilateral trade has exploded from almost nothing in 1995 to nearly $40 billion dollars annually, and the U.S. has become Vietnam’s largest export market.
But it’s not just the quantity of trade and investment that makes U.S. companies stand out. It’s also the quality of their conduct. I never miss an opportunity to boast about the U.S. culture of corporate social responsibility. It is one of America’s most powerful discriminators.
Just last month in fact, I helped cut the ribbon on a school built by Cargill. It was the 75th school built by Cargill in the past 20 years. Together these schools have matriculated over 13,000 students. To me, that is capacity building. Directly in the communities.
And American corporate leaders, being pragmatists and strategic thinkers, do not undertake these programs as simple charity: these are long-term investments. Those kids will become the skilled workers, the innovators, the leaders and partners that companies will need to compete in an integrated Pacific Rim. “The future is purchased by the present,” said Samuel Johnson.
Later tonight we’ll be recognizing some of the “best in breed” corporate responsibility programs of 2015. But right now I’d like to recognize all the socially committed, forward thinking companies that helped pave the way over the past two decades to the high standards endorsed in TPP. Vietnam is the smallest TPP economy in per capita terms, but it is determined to compete on equal footing with the world’s best. And when it rises to this challenge—and I am confident that it will—the opportunities will be immense.
The business sector understands these opportunities better than anyone. Week in and week out, the Embassy is talking with companies making big moves in Vietnam. They are looking at major plays in energy, in infrastructure, in aviation, in transportation…and, of course, in manufacturing. The first thing they want to discuss with me: TPP. They have read the studies forecasting Vietnam to realize the biggest gains in GDP growth. They have seen the predictions for a surge in Vietnam’s export volume. But they also have concerns: They are aware of Vietnam’s declining productivity growth and question whether its labor force has the skills and education needed to move up the value chain. They see the acute need for a backbone of modern services and improved infrastructure to connect to global trade partners. They wonder whether Vietnam can move fast enough to strengthen the rule of law and level the playing field, especially in property rights and the enforcement of competition policy.
These are very real challenges.
Vietnam’s leaders need to make tremendous reforms in the next two years, some of them very difficult, in preparation for TPP’s entry into force. But I believe that in 2016 we have an excellent window of opportunity to position Vietnam for success. We have momentum from the TPP negotiations. We have a country entering political transition with lot of positive energy among its leaders and citizens for deeper comprehensive international integration—which at its core means a closer relationship with the United States. We also have some potent forces to bring to bear, among the U.S. government, U.S. companies, and forward-thinking leaders in the Vietnamese government.
So I urge you to not let your foot off the gas now. On some of the toughest issues, like international labor standards, the private sector can push concrete reforms far better than government. Government’s role may be to get things rolling through initiatives like public-private partnerships.
And I’ll end on that note—there’s a lot of potential to be tapped among the people assembled in this room. I hope in the discussion that follows we can open up some of these issues and generate some good ideas.
Thank you once again for your time and attention. I wish all of you health and great success in all your work. Let us now enjoy some dinner and conversation as this excellent program continues.