American Center, Consulate General Ho Chi Minh City
May 29, 2015
Ambassador Ted Osius
It’s my great honor today to introduce Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a great friend to Vietnam. He’s accompanied by Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska.
Senator John McCain of Arizona
Thank you, thank you Ambassador. As the Ambassador mentioned I’m John McCain from Arizona and I’m joined with my colleagues from Rhode Island, Alaska, and Iowa. We are a bipartisan delegation, and we are all members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Twenty years ago many of us had very high hopes for the future of the Vietnamese-U.S. relationship. But even the greatest optimist amongst us could never have imagined what we have achieved together. And this is still just the beginning. Indeed, the choices we face today are no less profound than those we confronted two decades ago, choices that will define our future of prosperity and security. This is a decisive moment for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP. The Republican-controlled Senate gave our democratic president special authorities to conclude this agreement. That demonstrates the strong bipartisan support in Washington for the TPP and for taking our relationship for Vietnam, hopefully, to new heights. We know there are still some differences between our two governments over the TPP. But no disagreement, no matter how important it may seem, is worth jeopardizing this agreement. The stakes are too high. The benefits are too great. So let’s do what we have done at our best. Let’s work together and move forward together.
Similarly in our security relationship, we have recently made important strides as demonstrated by the U.S. decision last year to ease our lethal arms embargo, which we need to do more of. But here too, we have so much more to do. China’s actions in the (South) China Sea, especially its unprecedented land reclamation, are not just a challenge to the sovereignty of Vietnam and its ASEAN neighbors. They’re also a challenge to longstanding U.S. national interests and the principles of the liberal world order.
We just received information about mobile artillery now being placed in the areas that have been filled in and reclaimed by the Chinese government, and it is a disturbing development and an escalatory development. And one which heightens our need to make the Chinese understand that their actions are in violation of international law, and that their actions are going to be condemned by everyone in the world. We are committed, as our Vietnamese friends, as are ASEAN, to the preservation of international law. And that means freedom of navigation. This buildup and the placement now of military assets is a direct violation of all of those principles. The United States won’t shrink from these challenges. As Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said this week, “The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world.”
For our common defense, Vietnam and the United States must draw even closer together. Along with our other regional partners, our goal should be to set the conditions to remove all remaining barriers to normal bilateral security cooperation as soon as possible. Here too reaching our fullest potential, will require continued concrete steps by Vietnam to guarantee both in law and practice the internationally recognized human rights of all Vietnamese people. No one country will determine the future of the Asia-Pacific region. That future, I believe, will instead be shaped by the growing majority of Asians who have rising expectations for good governance, opportunity, rule of law, and the prospect of peace and equal justice among all nations, all nations large and small. That is the future that Vietnam cannot only participate in, it can lead. And you know as we have for the past twenty years, America will be with you. Now I’d like to ask my colleagues to make a brief statement and then we will answer questions.
Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island
Well thank you very much Mr. Chairman. First, I’d like to thank the people of Vietnam for their warmth and their hospitality. It’s been a pleasure to see this country, to travel to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and a real honor to be here with John McCain, who has done so much for the United States-Vietnamese relationship. It is a testament to the character of the people of this nation that past differences have been overcome, and we have both found a path to work together for the benefit of both the people of Vietnam and the people of America. I’ve been impressed with the industrious spirit demonstrated in Vietnam. I’d like to commend the work being done in Vietnam by companies like Intel to improve the educational labor opportunities to Vietnamese youth. And I’m optimistic as well that Vietnam will continue to improve its record on human rights, to ensure that future generations of Vietnamese people will live with dignity and economic prosperity. We have heard over and over again how concerned the people are here about the activities of the Chinese in the East Sea. Sovereignty disputes should be resolved through legal, peaceful means. All the countries in the region must work together, and I’m convinced will work together, to respect the sovereignty and rights of their neighbors and to ensure that the norms of international law are respected by every country. And this is an effort that will not be unilateral, but multilateral. Thank you very much.
Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa
Thank you. First, I would like to thank the Vietnamese people for allowing us to be here today. This has been a wonderful opportunity for me. This is my first trip to Vietnam, and it has been exceptionally enjoyable. The last twenty years have shown great progress and partnership between the United States and Vietnam as normalization of relations has continued. So I look forward to continuing greater partnerships in the areas of economic freedom through TPA and TPP, but also in ensuring that there is security and stability in this region. So again I want to reemphasize our commitment to Vietnam. It has been a great opportunity to be here with Senator John McCain and this delegation. He is by far and large one of the single most important players in ensuring that we have a strong relationship with Vietnam. So again, I want to thank you, the Vietnamese people, for allowing us to be here. I have enjoyed your beautiful country very, very much, and look forward to continuing this strong partnership in the future. Thank you.
Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska
Thank you. I’m Senator Dan Sullivan from Alaska. Like Senator Ernst, this is my first trip to Vietnam. I also want to express appreciation for hospitality we’ve seen over the last two and half days here. It has been an honor, as Senator Ernst and Senator Reed mentioned traveling here with Senator McCain, who has such a long history with the country and is certainly viewed by millions of Americans as a hero on many issues that relates to his service to our country. I do want to say that when you’re out here, you see the opportunities, not only for the region, but for the United States. Alaska, as you might know if you take a look at a map, we’re an Asian-Pacific state. We’re in this region as well. And it’s important for my constituents to look at the opportunities that are huge in this part of the world. I think one other thing I’d like to emphasize. You’re seeing something that’s very important, in my view, powerful, in terms of American foreign policy, national security; the United States is strongest when we speak with one voice from the executive branch and the legislative branch on key foreign policy national security issues. And whether it’s TPP or TPA or the rebalance to the Pacific in terms of security, it is a strong bipartisan approach to foreign policy. You’ve seen here with our delegation and you’re going to see that in Singapore when we head down to the Shangri-La Dialogue and meet with Secretary Carter tonight and tomorrow. Thank you.
Question: (inauble) My question for Senator John McCain is what are the Senators going to discuss about the South China Sea at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore?
(Senator McCain) We will be speaking, as well as our Secretary of Defense who will be there, I think in very strong and stern terms that this latest, and it is an escalation, of movement of military equipment into these reclaimed areas is another escalatory move. We condemn it. We know that is it in violation of international law, including the Law of the Sea. And we will continue to work with friends and allies in the region who are equally disturbed about this latest escalatory move on the part of China. It’s very disappointing to us because, for example, the Chinese have said that they wouldn’t have military equipment on the island. And we now know, not because they told us, but because of surveillance capability, that it is there. So it argues for much closer relations with other countries in the region including Vietnam, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and working closely together to try and make sure that every nation, in this case now China, respects international law.
Question: Thank you very much. (inaudible) I would like to ask Senator John McCain. China has shown no signs of backing out in the South China Sea. So what actions can the U.S. and regional allies do to impose costs on China’s behavior?
(Senator McCain) First of all, we can go to various international forums, including the United Nations. Second of all, we would urge ASEAN to join together and coordinate their activities diplomatically, economically, and other ways. And third of all, we believe that we can be very helpful to Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries in helping them build up their maritime capabilities. Last year as I mentioned, we removed the restrictions on maritime weapons to Vietnam. We may want to lift other restrictions. We may want to help countries, for example, such as the Philippines to build up their maritime capabilities. So none of us envision a conflict with China, but the best way to prevent anything like that is with strong capabilities, strong alliances, and the use of our diplomacy, and economic measures to teach the Chinese that what they are doing is not acceptable behavior for one of the world’s superpowers.
(Senator Reed) Let me just echo Senator McCain. The actions by the Chinese violate basic international norms. And I think the international community will stand together as one, and the most powerful response will be unity. The government of Vietnam, the government of the Philippines, all stand together, insisting upon their rights to free navigation, for rights to follow the norms. One of the ironies here is that no country has benefited economically more than the Chinese from the access to free passage of the seas, from globalization of trade, from all things that have proven very beneficial. I think standing together – and that’s what I believe we will do – we can send that message to them, both of restraint on their part and also in terms of the benefits of cooperation rather than this type of behavior.
(Senator McCain) I’d just like to add that I am confident that the American people would agree with Secretary Ash Carter’s comment, where he said, “The United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows as we do all around the world.” That message must be conveyed to the Chinese government.
Question: I’m from Bloomberg and my question is for you. You said it’s time for the U.S. to lift the weapons ban to Vietnam. If so, when should that happen?
(Senator McCain) If I understand your question, and I think I do, we did lift some restrictions on maritime weapons. And we need to look at, including on our upcoming defense bill, to loosening further restrictions on the supply of our weapons and sale of those capabilities to the Vietnamese. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that we want to help the Vietnamese defend themselves. But I would also point out, we continue our advocacy for respect and progress on human rights issues.
Question: I’m from Vietnam News. I have one question for you about your visit to Hanoi. You mentioned cooperation in security and defense. Can you be a little bit more specific?
(Senator McCain) We met with a lot of officials in Vietnam, among others, the Defense Minister. They are intent on military cooperation. For example, they’re now engaged in peacekeeping. There are many exercises that we are going to engage in, such as search and rescue and other humanitarian missions. There’s a broad array of areas that military-to-military relationships are already being improved and can continue to be improved. In my view that also makes it possible for them to acquire certain types of weapons, particularly maritime, in order to improve their capability to defend their very long oceanfront area (coastline).
Question: This year the U.S. started a comprehensive strategy on the South China Sea, and you keep pushing the Obama administration.(inaudible) What is the best strategy you believe could by applied in the interim and in the long term on the issues?
(Senator McCain) First of all, I think there’s been a lot of conversation about it. The ASEAN nations have made it one of their top priorities. We have, as I said, lifted the restrictions on our sale of maritime weapons to Vietnam. The issue is now probably, as far as the United States people is concerned, right behind that of terrorism, and the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. The whole issue of Chinese behavior has galvanized Republicans and Democrats to work together to figure out ways where we can address this issue. So Chinese behavior, not only on this issue, but in others has given the American people a conviction that we need to take measures in order to try to dissuade the Chinese from this kind of behavior. So all I can say is that we will be having hearings in the Congress. We will be examining various options. And we will work much more closely in the future with our allies in the region, particularly Vietnam.
(Senator Sullivan) I think it’s also important to point out that China’s actions have actually effectively led itself to being isolated from every other country. Think about it. Is there any other country in the region or globally that is supportive of what
China is doing and saying about reclamation activities? As far as we can tell, the answer is no. So this isn’t just a bilateral U.S.-China issue. This is the vast majority of countries in the region and globally that are not in agreement. So they are very isolated. And I think that that’s an area of opportunity. We’re going to be having all kinds of bilateral meetings with defense officials down in Singapore starting tonight. And I think we’re going to see that there’s certainly not a lot of support internationally or regionally for the activities China is undertaking.
Question: I’m from a Vietnamese newspaper and I have a question for you. (inaudible) So, will Washington risk military confrontation with Beijing to defend the freedom of navigation?
(Senator McCain) Well one of the actions that the United States took to translate Secretary Ash Carter’s words into action was that we overthrew it. We refused to respond to Chinese radio transmission that our aircraft identify themselves. And we will continue that. We will continue to make sure that China understands that we will not respect any kind of sovereignty over those areas of reclamation. They’re not islands, they are areas of reclamation. And then we will, as we’ve described, we will look at various options. And again, we are not going to have a conflict with China. But we can take certain measures which will be disincentives to China for them to continue this kind of activity.
Question: (inaudible) My question is that China released its first white paper on the state of the military. Some analysts say that it’s like a preparation for a conflict. The Global Times, a newspaper in China stated that a war between China and the U.S. is inevitable, if the bottom line of the U.S. is that China has to stop its construction. What do you think about this possibility, of this kind of war?
(Senator McCain) Look this is a time of tension. There’s no doubt about that. Chinese behavior has provoked that tension, but that’s a long, long way from some kind of military conflict. There are many avenues that we can use to arbitrate and to hopefully change Chinese behavior. But we have to react in ways that I just described. We will not respect an assertion by the Chinese that they have sovereignty over these reclaimed areas. But the Chinese are very intelligent leaders. I do not believe that anyone believes that it’s in China’s interest to have a huge confrontation with either ASEAN countries or the United States. And so this is a very tense time, but there are many avenues that we can explore and pursue to try and resolve this issue. And it’s going to require Chinese cooperation.
(Senator Ernst) I was just going to add to that it is a Chinese whitepaper that this information is coming from. So again, they are trying to make a bilateral argument that itis China versus the United States, but we don’t see that. It goes back many questions ago when you mentioned regional partners. This is very much about this region of the world. And I believe in the fact that the United States is encouraging economic freedom, human rights, and their freedoms. We are encouraging these types of activities in this area. We want to be partners with many of these countries here. I think that’s why China is making it a bilateral argument. But we want to encourage self-preservation for all of these countries here. Thank you.
Question: I know you talked to the Vietnamese government about weapons sales…
(Senator McCain) We have had that discussion. These discussions would be based to some degree on what they think they need and we will examine those requests, the needs that they have with what we can provide them with. And also how it is in keeping with our commitment to try and assist them to defend themselves. But at the same time we have to be very careful because the issue of human rights has not been completely resolved here.
Question: Can I have one last question? Several days ago, a high-ranking official from Australia said that if President Obama is given fast-track authority then every country can conclude the TPP negotiations in June. So do you think it’s possible or will we have to wait until next year?
(Senator McCain) It’s hard to say, but it certainly was an important step forward what we did last week in a bipartisan basis. But I would hope it could be done in June, but I would think maybe a bit longer than that somewhat. We really needed this vote in the Senate to start the convey moving forward. I am guardedly optimistic we can get it done perhaps before we go out in the August recess.
OK. Thank you very much.