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Remarks by James A. Kelly

Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs

Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies

Conference on the Future of U.S.-Vietnam Relations

Washington , D.C.

October 3, 2003 (as delivered)  

First I would like to congratulate SAIS and the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Institute of International Relations for organizing this conference on the future of relations between Vietnam and the United States .  I was sorry that travel to Tokyo kept me from joining Foreign Minister Nien's meeting with Secretary Powell or in hearing his keynote address to this meeting.  This conference reflects the importance of the relationship, an importance that is growing as ties become closer and as Vietnam becomes a more influential country in the region.  With its young population and entrepreneurial spirit, Vietnam is poised to become an even stronger, more influential player in the years to come.

In the midst of such a distinguished and well-informed group, I would particularly like to acknowledge Madame Ton Nu Thi Ninh, Vice Chair of the Committee on External Relations in the Vietnam National Assembly, as well as Assistant Minister Hung and Ambassador Thanh or IIR.  Finally, I would like to thank Karl Jackson and Fred Brown for their kind invitation to address the conference today.

Our Shared History

We could not begin a discussion on the future of U.S.-Vietnam relations without addressing the past.  Both Vietnam and the United States are countries whose pasts, which exert a strong influence on current policies, have the potential for obscuring a shared vision of understanding and cooperation.  Although both sides are committed to focusing on issues of mutual benefit, our war experiences have a lingering effect on the bilateral relationship. 

That said, we have made tremendous strides in the relationship in a relatively short period of time.  The relationship has come a long way in the last three decades.  In the 60's and 70's, many of us, including me, were in Vietnam with the U.S. armed forces.  In the following decade, though, we were already on the way to normalization as we began to address the question of high importance to all of us, the fullest possible accounting for POW/MIA.  Progress on this issue enabled us to move forward in other areas as well.  Twenty years after the end of the war, we formalized ties, and in 1997 we exchanged ambassadors.  Since then we have been moving forward across the spectrum from trade, to science and technology, to mil-mil ties.  Let me elaborate a bit on these achievements.

Areas of Success

It was part of the legacy of the Vietnam War, namely achieving the fullest possible accounting of our POW/MIAs, which served as the catalyst for the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations in 1995.  As a result of the commitment on both sides, over 400 U.S. families now have answers about the fate of their loved ones.  We appreciate the efforts by Vietnam's government to date to assist in accounting for our missing.  Our governments and all of us share the grief caused by the tragic April 2001 helicopter crash that took the lives of nine Vietnamese and seven Americans as the joint task force team surveyed potential excavation sites.  I note as well the President's annual certification of Vietnamese cooperation on POW/MIA accounting, in which he calls for greater unilateral efforts on Vietnam's part.  All Americans would appreciate further actions to provide access or information from relevant archives, including those that might relate to Cambodia or Laos, and efforts to return remains that are unlikely to be recovered jointly in the field.

In our burgeoning economic relationship, the Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) is a key foundation and presents enormous opportunities for expanded cooperation.  The BTA binds Vietnam to an unprecedented array of reform commitments in its legal and regulatory structure.  USAID is providing assistance to Vietnam through the Support for Trade Acceleration Reform (or STAR) program.  Although Vietnam is lagging on some of its BTA implementation commitments and enforcement remains weak, Vietnam has made real progress in revising legislation related to intellectual property rights and opening its market to U.S. products.  We encourage Vietnam to continue its process of reform.  This will ease the way for Vietnam's stated goal of accession to the World Trade Organization in 2005.

Since the BTA went into effect in December 2001, trade between the U.S. and Vietnam has increased dramatically.  The value of Vietnamese exports to the U.S. grew to $2.4 billion in 2002, an increase of 129 percent over 2001 exports.  U.S. exports to Vietnam were also significantly higher over the same period - up 26 percent to $580 million.  On August 20 in Seattle, Vietnam took delivery of the first of four Boeing 777 aircraft.

Vietnam and the U.S. are also working closely on science and technology issues. The U.S.-Vietnam Agreement for Science and Technology Cooperation entered into force in March 2001. The agreement is an umbrella framework intended to support a cooperative approach to environment, science and technology policy, and to advance research and development objectives.  Annual meetings are organized to discuss the state of current research and cooperation.  We look forward to participating in the third Joint Committee Meeting on Science and Technology that will convene next month in Hanoi.  We are also committed to expanding Vietnam's scientific capacity through a fellowship program administered by the Vietnam Education Foundation.

Cultural and educational exchange is another very important part of our expanding relationship.  The Fulbright Program is thriving and will celebrate the tenth year of its Vietnamese student scholarship program this month.  The new Vietnam Educational Foundation is creating opportunities for Vietnamese and American professors and graduate students to learn from one another in math and the sciences.

In the cultural area, under the Ambassador's Fund for Cultural Preservation, the U.S. is restoring pagodas in Bac Ninh and Hoi An.  The State Department has funded American singers and jazz groups who have held master classes and given performances in Vietnam this past year.  The exhibition "Vietnam:  Journeys of Body, Mind, and Spirit," at the Museum of National History in New York, cosponsored by Vietnam's Museum of Ethnology, is another example of successful bilateral cultural collaboration.  This remarkable show was in sharp relief during the President's reception for national leaders at the beginning of UNGA last week.

For obvious historical reasons, contact between our armed forces has been one of the slower areas to develop since we established diplomatic relations in 1995.  But the need to build confidence and to overcome decades of mistrust between two former enemies eventually led to a wide range of humanitarian programs:  landmine clearance and unexploded ordnance removal; health assistance; HIV/AIDS and other infectious disease prevention; and improved access to services for persons with disabilities.  Both countries now recognize the benefit of expanding military ties, whether it be in joint search and rescue activities, or a team of American military doctors traveling to Vietnam to work with their Vietnamese counterparts on assisting burn victims.

We look forward to Defense Minister Tra's November visit to the United States at the invitation of Secretary Rumsfeld.  Also within the next year, we will likely see a U.S. Navy ship visit to Ho Chi Minh City.  These events all show that Vietnam and the United States are now concentrating on the future, rather than looking to the past.

We have also had good exchanges with Vietnam on counter-terrorism.  The Vietnamese have responded to our requests for extra security for our Mission when necessary.  They have also taken measures to guard against terrorist money laundering and have signed on to 8 of the 12 UN counter-terrorism conventions.

As I mentioned earlier, it is important that we also continue to work on areas where we have differences.  We need to make demonstrable progress in these areas, as well.  In fact, I am concerned that differences on human rights and religious freedom have the potential to impede the forward momentum in our ties more than any other issue.  We recognize Vietnam's progress over the past decade in the areas of individual freedoms, people's control over their lives, and expanded freedom of religion.  But, problems continue.  In the past year, many people have been detained and sentenced in Vietnam for nothing more than the peaceful expression of their views or the peaceful practice of their faith.  Several peaceful democracy advocates have been arrested this year, including Dr. Nguyen Dan Que.  Others have received unjust and harsh prison sentences for nothing more than the peaceful expression of their views on the Internet.  These arrests and sentences are clear violations of international standards for human rights.

In the Central and Northwest Highlands, ethnic minority Protestants who are not subversives, who are not trying to split the country, are persecuted by officials who view all Protestant faith as subversive.  Some important leaders of other faiths, including Buddhists, Catholics, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao, suffer under unjust treatment.  These actions cause concern among Vietnam's friends here, in the Executive Branch, in Congress, and among the public. 

A cooperative relationship between our law enforcement agencies is another area that has been slow to develop.  Given that it is in both countries' interest to exchange information on narcotics, terrorism, and trafficking in persons, we need to generate the mechanisms necessary to do so.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The overall U.S.-Vietnam relationship - economic, political, and cultural - is improving.  U.S.-Vietnam ties represent more than the BTA and the sum of our direct and indirect official development assistance.  We are well on the way toward putting together a network of linkages - humanitarian programs, academic and cultural exchanges, military and law enforcement cooperation, and dialogue on strategic issues - that represent truly normalized relations.  Many government agencies on both sides, as well as NGOs, are involved.  I am confident that this process will continue, and could even accelerate in the future.

On the multilateral side, I often reflect about the opportunities and problems of larger Southeast Asia and of ASEAN.  As many of our efforts including ASEAN integration and EAI indicate, there are problems in ASEAN beyond the slow recovery from 1997.  The effect of China's attraction of investment - once less than ASEAN's and now far greater - has left ASEAN's response and leadership challenged.  Free trade, including AFTA and progress toward the APEC goals, is central in enabling the region's strengths to be brought to bear.  And the confidence of investors is key.

In this Vietnam has a leadership role awaiting it.  Vietnam's population, geography, but most of all, the zeal for education and the capacity for work that are characteristics of the Vietnamese people can be critical, if Vietnam's leadership will look at the world beyond its borders.  

Back on the bilateral side, 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 that historically have been taboo.  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.  Of particular importance will be how Vietnam lives up to its international commitments on human rights and religious freedom, and the accounting for our missing personnel.

Basic investments in mutual understanding pay large dividends. They can help minimize crises between our countries or eliminate the problems before they impede progress.  We must smooth out the ups and downs of bilateral relations as we stride into the future in an atmosphere of cooperation and mutual respect.   

Overall, I am optimistic.  I believe our common interests already outweigh our differences, which, with careful management, can be moved in the right direction.  Thank you.