Secretary of State Kerry’s Remarks on U.S.-Vietnam: Looking to the Future

Hanoi, Vietnam–(ENEWSPF)–August 7, 2015.

Well, good afternoon and welcome, everybody. (Applause.) This is an really historic moment as we mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of normal diplomatic relations between the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. And what a journey it has been. And I congratulate all those of you who have helped to make this happen.

I am really delighted by the presence of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Phan Binh Minh. Thank you so much for your partnership and efforts. We really appreciate what you do. (Applause.)

And I’m very pleased to be here with – the president just said to me, pointed to Ted Osius, our ambassador – he said, “He’s Vietnamese; he’s not American.” (Laughter.) And I said, “You’ve converted him.” But the truth is he’s one of our finest diplomats, Ambassador Ted Osius. Thank you for what you do. (Applause.)

I have to tell you that seeing Ted, I am reminded – perhaps a little bit painfully – of when we first met. It was about 17 years ago, and I was then a U.S. Senator. And I came here to participate in a bike ride with American veterans, particularly a number who had been wounded during the war, who were doing this ride. And the heat and the humidity, obviously, made it a challenging ride. But even worse, every time that I eased up on my pedals and I’d look ahead, there was Ted Osius cruising away like he was on some kind of lazy Sunday afternoon jaunt. And I later found out why he looked so good. Ted was what we in the United States would call a “ringer” – that is, someone who makes it look like he’s riding a bike for the first time, but he’s really pretty expert. And I learned that he once rode the full 1,200-miles between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – and unlike some people that I know, he cycled a great distance without falling off his bike, folks. (Laughter.)

I actually will never forget the crowd of citizens in Ho Chi Minh City that assembled at the finish line to cheer us on that day. They performed acrobatics, there was a dragon dance, there was a high-wire act. And as we left, Ted stood up and in perfect Vietnamese he thanked everybody for contributing in such a spontaneous and heartfelt way to the healing between our two countries.

And as we all know, that healing took a while and didn’t come easy for either side. It was a painstaking process that required a lot of hard work, a certain amount of courage, and some compromise. And we all know that there could have been no progress without resolving the great unanswered questions at the time surrounding the possibility of missing Americans left behind in Southeast Asia. We also knew that those of us who had set out to build a new relationship were tempting the emotions of opposition of many people in both countries.

Into that cacophonous cauldron, John McCain and I were thrown together. Some were suspicious of both of us, but together we found common ground. And I will personally never forget standing with John McCain in the very cell in the Hanoi Hilton in which he spent a number of years of his life, just the two of us, alone in that cell as I listened to him talk about the experience. I will always be grateful for his partnership in helping to make real peace with Vietnam.

And I will always be grateful especially to the Vietnamese people. They helped us to search for a few thousand of our fallen troops even as a larger number – a far larger number – of theirs remained missing. They voluntarily dug up their own rice paddies. They let us into their homes, into their history houses, into their prisons, even. And on more than one occasion, they guided us across what were quite literally minefields. In a place where there were many reasons for bitterness, there was none. And I am grateful to the leaders who had the vision to make the decisions to help us move forward.

I personally took in the vicinity of some 16 or 17 trips to the region, studied every detail of the stories behind the missing soldiers, relived my own memories of the war during the time I was here, and eventually, one of the things we are proudest of, those of us involved in this, was that this work became part – actually the creation – of the most comprehensive and exhaustive accounting of the missing and dead in all of the history of human warfare. Together, we provided answers to hundreds of waiting families in our country, and we also helped the Vietnamese to be able to find answers for their own missing, which were far larger in number than ours. What is most important: that work still continues.

So many people on both sides gave years of their lives to this effort. I particularly want to thank all those who took part in the investigation and the diplomacy that followed: My close advisors Francis Zwenig, and Nancy Stetson, and Virginia “Ginny” Foote; John McCain’s advisor Mark Salter; the investigation’s chief counsel Bill Codinha; my lifelong friend, who is here, Tommy Vallely; and steadfast partners with that effort – I know Chris Gregory, another veteran who’s also here; and then partners in the Senate – Chuck Robb, Bob Kerrey, Chuck Hagel, all veterans of the war; Congressman Pete Peterson, a former prisoner of war; General John Vessey; and Admiral Chuck Larson. On the Vietnamese side, Prime Minister Vo Van Ket; Foreign Ministers Win Maan Com and Win Ka Thaat, the father of our current deputy prime minister; Ambassador Lay Vaan Baann; Ambassador Phan who is here, who did an extraordinary job of translating; General Secretary Do Moi; and General Le Duc Anh – they were all instrumental and committed to this effort and made difficult decisions.

Standing here today, I am reminded now of conversations that I have had recently with people who talk almost casually about the prospect of war with one country or another. And I am tempted to say: You don’t have the first idea of what you are talking about.

For sure, there are times when one may have no choice but to go to war, but it is never something to rush to or to accept without exploring every other available option. The war that took place here half a century ago divided each of our countries and it stemmed from the most profound failure of diplomatic insight and political vision. Looking back, we honor the bravery of those who fought on both sides, and we will never cease to mourn those who were lost or injured.

Let me be clear: The process of moving on and healing and restoring our diplomatic ties is not about forgetting. If we forget, we cease to learn. And the tragedy of what happened here should be a constant reminder of the horror and the suffering that war inflicts.

But neither are we here to dwell on the past. For many years, I have looked forward to the time when Americans would hear the word “Vietnam” and think more of a country, not a conflict. I believe I can say – again without failing to honor past sacrifice and service – that we have reached that point now.

As reflected by General Secretary Trong’s visit to Washington last month, our leaders are deeply engaged on a wide range of economic and security issues. Our citizens are getting to know each other better through student exchanges, business deals, tourism, family ties. More and more Americans of Vietnamese descent are now building new ties to the land that they or their parents and their grandparents left – another important part of our healing process. As a Senator, I used to point out that the generation at that time, when I was working with people to normalize – at that time, the generation at that time was born after the war. Well, today, the young adults of America and Vietnam were born after the normalization of relations, let alone the war. What was extraordinary to my generation could not be more routine or natural to this generation.

So the time has come to look ahead, and to understand that the United States-Vietnam agenda is no longer shaped primarily by what was. We are not still in the process of reconciliation. The big news today is that the United States and Vietnam have reconciled.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just look at the transformation that has taken place. Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 60,000 annual American visitors to Vietnam. Today, there are nearly half a million. Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 800 Vietnamese students studying in the United States. Today, there are 17,000. Twenty years ago, bilateral trade between us in our goods was only $451 million. Today, it’s more than 36 billion. These aren’t just statistics. They are a measure of one of the most remarkable transformations in history.

In 2013, President Obama and President Sang launched a comprehensive partnership between our governments, a partnership that also extends more broadly to our peoples. Today, we are strengthening our ties in a host of areas – education, the environment, science, technology, high-tech, the Internet, and even military-to-military cooperation. We also have a priceless opportunity to achieve a breakthrough on trade.

The negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement began more than five years ago. They involve a dozen nations along the Pacific Rim, and they would elevate trade among the countries representing nearly 40 percent of the globe’s economic output. When we complete this agreement, we will have built an unprecedented regional platform on which to support innovation and create jobs, enhance the environment, improve working conditions, and strengthen commercial ties from Hanoi and Tokyo to Santiago and Washington D.C. It’s no wonder that surveys show strong support for this landmark agreement in both of our countries. More trade with higher standards – including the right to form independent labor unions – is a critical milestone on the path to a shared and sustainable future.

Now for sure, the true measure of our partnership is not just whether our economies grow. It is also how they grow. We know that rising sea levels, increasingly frequent and intense typhoons, poorly planned dams, and drought and saltwater intrusion pose a terrible threat to the Mekong Delta, with its heavily populated, low-lying areas.

Many of you know that I was introduced to the Lower Mekong and to the Mekong Delta years ago under different circumstances, and to me it has a special meaning. I spent some time in that delta decades ago, when I was in the United States Navy, and I got to know the canals and the rivers very well – the incredible panorama of children, rice paddies, water buffalo; the incredible fish and the natural beauty everywhere that you look. But natural beauty is only part of the Mekong’s story. The River Basin is also the economic lifeblood of an entire region, helping to sustain the lives, pay the bills, and fill the stomachs of more than 70 million people.

Who would have thought when I was patrolling around on a boat on the Mekong River in 1968 and ‘69 that nearly half a century later, I would have a chance to create an initiative to help save that very river? But that is what we are doing with our partners – Cambodia, Thailand, Laos PDR, Vietnam, Myanmar, and a group of donor friends. Through the Lower Mekong Initiative, we are working to improve the country’s resilience to the effects of climate change. And the United States is focusing assistance on clean energy and the development of sustainable infrastructure and ecosystem resource management. We have seen the warnings, my friends, and we are committed to translating our mutual concern into action.

We have learned through years of mistakes that a healthy environment and a healthy economy go hand in hand. So does a high performing system of education. Vietnam is one of the youngest countries in the world – 23 million people – a quarter of the country – below the age of 15. So it is good that the commitment to education in Vietnam is strong, with literacy rates above 90 percent and more than 160 colleges and universities. But here, as in many countries – including in the United States – there is often a gap between what students learn in the classroom and the skills that are required in the workplace.

To succeed in today’s global economy, graduates must know more than what to think. They must also know how to think and they must have the incentive to innovate and to pursue new ideas. One way to ensure that is to create partnerships between top academic institutions, which is exactly the course that we are on. The Institute of International Education has sponsored a series of partnerships between U.S. universities and Vietnam. The University of Hawaii offers an Executive MBA program that is accredited in the United States and in Vietnam. And thanks to the hard work and vision of people like Tommy Vallely – and an endorsement from the government here – we’re moving ahead with the founding of Fulbright University in Ho Chi Minh City. In fact, just last month, Vietnam issued a license for construction to begin on the school, which is affiliated with Harvard and will emphasize academic freedom and an awareness of what the global marketplace demands.

Two decades ago, when the United States and Vietnam normalized relations, we did share a vision that our two countries would one day cooperate on education, the environment, the economy. But the fact is that something far less predictable – indeed, less imaginable – has now become the new normal – because today we are cooperating on security issues as well.

For example, Vietnam is a partner in America’s Global Peace Operations Initiative. Last year, it began contributing to UN peace operations in a small way, but with plans to send engineering, medical, and other specialized units in the near future. Together with the United Kingdom and the United States – our country is helping personnel from this country to be able to prepare for those specialized kinds of deployments.

During General Secretary Trong’s visit to Washington, we also signed a memorandum of understanding as part of our Global Health Security Agenda to help build capacity to prevent and respond to the spread of epidemic disease. And as we have all been reminded in recent times, a threat to public health anywhere is a danger everywhere, and so countries need to work together if we’re going to safeguard the wellbeing of our citizens. It requires cooperation – diseases that know no border, diseases that can spread around the world with the global marketplace, threaten everybody and we all need to build the capacity to be able to respond.

Our two governments also share an interest in freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes in the South China Sea. The United States has made it clear that we do not favor one set of claims over another – but we do support a process through which disputes can be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law. International law treats all countries equally; it does not recognize spheres of influence or the right of large nations to impose their will on smaller neighbors simply because they can; it tells us that the resolution of disputes should depend on who has the better argument, who has the law on their side – not who has the bigger army. That is a core tenet of America’s foreign policy in this region as it has been in other regions over the years. Whether big or small, all countries should refrain from provocative acts that add to tensions or might further militarize the sea.

Finally, today relations between the United States and Vietnam are, as I noted, comprehensive. Even as we focus on the future, we continue our joint recovery operations to answer every question regarding the possible fate of Americans or Vietnamese still unaccounted for, and this is something we have continued to do in the rest of Southeast Asia. It is perhaps notable that in our quest to resolve the issues of POW/MIA, together with Cambodia and Laos PDR, the United States and Vietnam created this extraordinary, most comprehensive and exhaustive effort to account for missing and lost, and I believe that is a fundamental and important statement about the values of our two countries. That quest will continue for as long as there are leads.

We’ve also reached a milestone in our ability to be able to reclaim the soil that was contaminated by dioxin in Vietnam, particularly in the vicinity of Danang Air Base, and to find and remove explosives that remain from the war. It is worth remembering that it was our mutual effort to develop an understanding on these very issues – issues that came directly out of the bitter conflict – that first began to break down the barriers of mistrust that separated our countries.

The barriers of mistrust and misunderstanding are continuing to fall, and I hope on other issues that our governments have debated over the years, that we will continue to be able to make progress. I am happy, for instance, that we have established such an honest, substantive, and increasingly productive dialogue on human rights and democratic freedoms.

The freedom to speak, the freedom to worship, to travel, to acquire knowledge and information, and to take part in decisions that affect one’s life – these are essentials. Every country and culture is unique, and we respect the differences of basic structures of governance. But this idea of freedom is universally recognized. It is rooted in our fundamental human need to be accorded dignity and to be treated with respect.

Here in Vietnam, your new constitution speaks of democracy and pledges to protect human rights. And in my conversation today with President Sang, he couldn’t have been more clear about how important it is to the leaders of Vietnam to respect to the rights of their people. They do and want to. Your government has committed to make Vietnam’s domestic laws conform to that new constitution and to international human rights standards. Independent surveys have shown consistently that the Vietnamese people have a deep admiration for democratic institutions and values – a trait that they certainly have in common with the citizens of the United States. And so even as we respect the different political systems, we also have grounds for discussion about the implementation of constitutional protections, about political prisoners, the role of journalists, legal reform, and what it means to observe in practice what our commitments require in principle.

The United States recognizes that only the Vietnamese people can determine their political system. And we speak with some humility on these matters, because as you can read and see, we are working hard to perfect our own system. But there are basic principles that we will always defend: No one should be punished for speaking their mind so long as they are peaceful; and if trading goods flow freely between us, so should information and ideas. And we believe that progress in upholding these basic human rights will absolutely serve Vietnam’s interests in several ways.

First, international norms and standards protect Vietnam; Vietnam rightly appeals to them when its interests are threatened. It is important, therefore, as your government has recognized, to respect those standards and norms without exception.

Second, giving people peaceful outlets for expressing grievances – whether it’s a blogger who exposes corruption or a farmer who complains about a land grab – it decreases the chance that people will resort to violence and get their message across. And it will help the government to keep up with changes that are already happening as the world at large changes. After all, millions of people in Vietnam are already freely expressing themselves on Facebook; many thousands of Vietnamese workers are already freely associating to defend their interests – even though it is sometimes risky. Giving full recognition to these rights in the law will increase trust between citizens and their state, and between workers and their employers. It will strengthen social cohesion and stability.

Finally, progress on human rights and the rule of law will provide the foundation for a deeper and more sustainable strategy and strategic partnership between the United States and Vietnam. Only you can decide the pace and the direction of the process of building this partnership. But I am sure you have noticed that America’s closest partnerships in the world are with countries that share a commitment to certain values. The more we have in common, the easier it will be to convince our people to deepen the bonds and make the sacrifices on each other’s behalf.

Vietnam and our shared journey from conflict to friendship crosses my mind frequently as I grapple with the complex challenges that we face in the world today – from strife in the Middle East to the dangers of violent extremism with Daesh, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and dozens of other violent extremists, and also even the dangers of the march of technology with cyber intrusion and potential of cyber warfare.

That we are standing here today celebrating 20 years of normalized relations is proof that we are not doomed merely to repeat the mistakes that we have made in the past. We have the ability to overcome great bitterness and to substitute trust for suspicion and replace enmity with respect. The United States and Vietnam have again proven that former adversaries really can become partners, even in the complex world that we face today. And as much as that achievement matters to us, it is also a profound and timely lesson to the rest of the world.

When President Clinton announced America’s decision in 1995, he did so with a clear mission. Echoing the words of the scriptures, he said: “Let this moment…be a time to heal and a time to build.”

It took us 20 years to normalize ties. It took us 20 more years to move from healing to building. Think of what we can accomplish in the 20 years to come.

I told you at the start about our ambassador’s bicycling adventures. Well, this spring, he joined our Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski and officials from Vietnam’s foreign ministry in scaling Vietnam’s highest peak, Mt. Fansipan. He tells me it was a tough climb, through rain and cloud, and then down in darkness when the party almost lost its way. But they made it together – together. And so it is with us.

There are steep hills yet to climb, and hard choices to make for our partnership in order to reach its full potential. But we know that the sky above us is the limit; given what we have achieved, and our people’s common aspirations, anything – and everything – is possible.

That is a testament to the grit and determination of both Americans and Vietnamese, and a powerful sign that – although ever mindful of the past – we are dedicated to a future of prosperity, peace, and freedom for all. Thank you. (Applause.)