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U.S.-VIETNAM RELATIONS - THE NEED FOR A BROADER VISION

Ambassador’s Speech
before the Annual Meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce
Hanoi, September 24, 2003

At our embassy, we often brief American visitors.  When I do the briefing, I usually begin by reminding people of two points: (1) that U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations are new and (2) that until less than ten years ago Vietnam was a very isolated country.  Because our ties are still relatively new, we still haven’t put all the pieces in place.  Because Vietnam is isolated for so long, it still is learning how to integrate into the international economic and political system.  We also find that our differences in perspective on international issues sometimes are difficult to bridge.  We have to understand better their system, values, and viewpoints; and they have to understand ours better.

We have seen a number of indications that Vietnam’s leadership has, in the past year, made some important decisions about relations with the U.S.  The Vietnamese government says that it values good relations with America as important for Vietnam’s integration into the international economy.  We are seen as an important market, a source of investment, a provider of useful assistance, and a good place for Vietnamese to go for university study.  We welcome all of that.

But I would like to suggest tonight that we need to embrace a definition of a “success” in our relationship which is broader and more inclusive.  Our definition of “success” cannot be limited to commercial progress.  U.S.-Vietnam relations represent more than our bilateral trade agreement.

America is a complex country, as is Vietnam, and our ties will be complex.  Any attempt to narrow our focus to economic ties will ultimately fail.  Cultural, humanitarian, military and law enforcement ties will all have their role.  We need to discuss our strategic views on the region and the world and we must deal with our differences of opinion on human rights and religious freedom.

But first, let’s look at our economic ties.  The commercial data, the levels of USG assistance to Vietnam are impressive yardsticks and provide convincing proof that the USG has been a good partner to Vietnam’s government in its attempt to develop a better life for its people and to integrate into the world economy.  We are Vietnam’s number 1 trading partner, its number 6 foreign aid donor, and number 1 among countries supporting Vietnam’s efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.  Much of what the United Nations does in this country to help fight trafficking in persons and illegal drugs is supported by USG funding.  We are the largest contributor to the ADB, the World Bank and the IMF, and that money in turn helps Vietnam.  Vietnamese officials sometimes bemoan the relatively low level of U.S.-investment in Vietnam, but if the figures are corrected to include American money channeled through Singapore subsidiaries, we would be somewhere around number 5 or 6.

So the dollar signs are there.  But our bilateral relations are going to have to be seen as more than a “tool” to reach higher export figures.  We are not here on a mission to help Vietnam’s balance of payments.  Nor do we regard the Vietnamese people as solely a market for our goods.  Our histories have been entwined by broader issues than commerce and economic growth and they will continue to be.

Vietnamese leaders have said many times that they are interested in broader understanding between our countries.  That assertion is a good start toward a long term vision of our relationship.  We in the embassy have long agreed with that need and institutionalized “mutual understanding” as one of our work goals.

Let’s start with one of the toughest areas:  for obvious historical reasons, the relationship between our armed forces has developed slowly since we normalized times in 1995.  But both countries do see the benefit of expansion of military ties.  We are working with defense department funds to train Vietnamese in the disposal of unexploded ordnance and demining.  A team of American military doctors recently came here to work with Vietnamese counterparts on burn victims.  The visit was a great success.  We recently turned over to the authorities of Thua Thien Hue province the eighth clinic and disaster relief shelter built through the assistance from our pacific command.  We expect Minister of Defense Tra to visit the United States at the invitation of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld this fall.  Also within the next year, we probably will see a U.S. navy ship visit Ho Chi Minh City.  Those events are all important symbols that our two countries are looking to the future rather than to the past.

Cultural and educational exchange is another very important part of expanding mutual understanding.  The Fulbright Program is thriving and will celebrate the 10th year of its Vietnamese student scholarship program next month.  The new Vietnam Education Foundation is creating opportunities for Vietnamese and American professors and students to learn from one another in the sciences.  We expect that values and understanding of one another’s cultures will be exchanged along with formulas, equations, and the hard stuff of research and science.

We have demonstrated our respect for Vietnam’s culture by financing restoration work at the Dau Pagoda in Bac Ninh province and the preservation of music of the Thai people in the northeast provinces.  We are set to begin restoration of a pagoda in Hoi An.  The State Department has funded America singers and jazz groups who have held master classes and given performances throughout Vietnam in the last year.  We are funding an exchange of dancers and art managers organized by the dance theatre workshop of New York.  I returned to New York last March to attend the opening of “Vietnam:  A Journey of Body, Mind, and Spirit,” a joint exhibition between the American Museum of Natural History and Vietnam’s Museum of Ethnology, and we made a special effort to ensure footage of that historic opening was aired by Vietnam National Television.

The USG continues to support the Asia Foundation in its work stocking the libraries of Vietnam with useful works that help to develop the country.  Next month three American Studies professors from Vietnam will visit the United States to hone their skills and a major American Studies conference in Hanoi will continue the work of a similar conference in June at Can Tho University.

When Vietnamese students and researchers delve into the field of American Studies, they will learn about our ethnic make-up and about our values.  That exposure could make it easier for them to understand why Americans are concerned about issues of human rights and religious freedom in our own country, in Vietnam and elsewhere.  They also will learn the history behind U.S. federalism and why Washington controls U.S. foreign policy, but does not have the power to block free speech by individuals, states or local governments, including, to just cite one example, their decision to fly a flag with three red stripes against a yellow background.  Vietnamese scholars who understand the U.S. should be a valuable asset to this country for the insights they bring.

These efforts to create the mutual understanding between our two peoples through culture, education, and the arts are long-term investments.  They will help us to understand each other’s strategic views of the region and the values that underpin our political dynamics.  These basic investments will help minimize crises of understanding between our countries and smooth out the inevitable ups and downs of bilateral relations.

We know that there still are some people in both America and Vietnam who resist our two countries and peoples reconciling and arriving at mutual understanding.  In Vietnam, we still cannot bring American musicians to perform for university students in every province in this country.   And Vietnamese students interested in an MA degree in American Studies are suspect in the eyes of some people.  The development of a relationship between our law enforcement agencies has also been slow.  It is difficult to figure out how to exchange information on narcotics, terrorism or trafficking in persons when so much is still treated here as a state secret.  In addition, I still meet officials who see “peaceful evolution” conspiracies lurking behind every proposal.

But in general we have been making good progress in our bilateral ties during the past few months.  A stream of visits by Vietnam’s cabinet members began this month with the trip by Trade Minister Tuyen and continues with trips to Washington by the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Planning and Investment, and the Defense Minister.  Some of these positive developments were originally scheduled to occur earlier, but unfortunately we lost some time and momentum in developing the relationship at the time of the Iraq War.  The Vietnamese government briefly put on hold bilateral meetings and plans for high level trips.  But with the end of the war, that unfortunate hiatus ended, and both sides have tried to make up for lost time.

In the long term, it is human rights issues rather than policy toward Iraq which will be the dark cloud hanging over our relationship.  My concern has always been that human rights controversies can impede the forward momentum in our ties – more than any other issue.  As many of you know, I first visited the then Democratic Republic of Vietnam when I spent three weeks in Haiphong in 1973, assisting with the post-Paris peace agreement mine sweeping operations.  I also visited Hanoi in 1982.  I remember very well the lack of freedom and economic opportunity during that bleak era.  I know that Vietnam has progressed in the areas of individual freedom, people’s control over their lives, and freedom of religion.  But it is a fact of life that the attention of most people in the West will always be drawn to shortcomings and problems rather than to the advances.  In the past year, many people have been detained and sentenced in Vietnam for doing nothing more than peacefully expressing their views.  In the Central Highlands, ethnic minority protestants who are not subversives, whoa re not trying to split the country, are persecuted by officials who view all protestant faith as subversive.  These actions get high-level attention in Washington.  There might be Senate hearings next month on human rights and religious freedom problems in Vietnam.

As I have said several times before, American concern about these issues is a product of our national character and values.  It is not part of some plot to overthrow the system here.  It also is not a concern limited to a small group of Vietnamese Americans, as is often alleged by Vietnamese officials.  I think that the growing cadre of American experts in Vietnam need to help their government colleagues, the official press, and the Vietnamese people to understand better the political dynamics of the U.S.

Let me try to sum up these thoughts on our relationship. We all can see that our bilateral relationship is growing by numbers and dollar signs, and these quantifiable elements in the relationship indicate a clear positive movement.  But U.S.-Vietnam ties represent more than the bilateral trade agreement and the sum of our direct and indirect official development assistance.  We are well on the way toward putting into place a web of ties – humanitarian programs, academic and cultural exchanges, military and law enforcement ties, and dialogue on strategic issues – which represent truly normalized relations.  Many government agencies on both sides, and many non-government organizations, are involved.  I am confident that this process will continue, and could even accelerate, in the future.  We must continue to work hard to understand each other.  We must have the courage and tenacity to keep pressing to develop ties in areas which historically have out of bounds.  We must recognize that the more important the relationship becomes, the more focus there will be in the United States on internal conditions in Vietnam, especially how Vietnam lives up to the international commitments it has made on political and religious freedom.

With all those challenges, this is an exciting time to be working in Vietnam.  We always have to keep our focus on our overall goal – to help Vietnam integrate into the international economic system and into the international community in general.  We believe that it is in our interest as well as in Vietnam’s interest that it become a prosperous country, playing an active role in this region and in the world.  I look forward to another year of working with all of you on all of these important issues and goals.

Thank you.