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It is very inspiring to see that what so many of us worked to help make happen some 20 years ago is now evolving into a very productive and important partnership. When I first returned to Vietnam as a civilian back in 1991, I could sense the unbelievable untapped dynamism of the Vietnamese people, a sense of readiness to reengage with the world, and the world was very ready to reengage with Vietnam.
As we all remember, however, normalization with Vietnam, really in many ways the making of peace, did not come easily. And Mr. President, I’m pleased to say as I stand here, there are many people in this room who had a great deal of involvement through the years in helping to build this relationship. I see Senator Bob Kerrey here and Chuck Robb, a senator – former senator; Tom Vallely, very involved with the Fulbright program; Senator Richard Lugar – former senator Lugar here; and many others. Senator Ben Cardin is here. Congressman Sandy Levin – people all of whom have worked hard to build this relationship. And the truth is all of them will remember that it was a difficult, painstaking process that required a lot of hard work, a certain amount of courage, and some compromise.
We all knew back then that we were unable to make progress without addressing the great unanswered question of whether or not American prisoners had been left behind in Southeast Asia. And we also knew that those of us in both countries who set about to try to resolve that issue were tempting the emotional opposition of many people on both sides. And that is why I will always be grateful to the Vietnamese leaders that I worked with over the ten-year period who built an extraordinary partnership in order to bring us to this day where we are able to stand here.
They helped us to search for a few thousand of our sons even as a larger number of theirs were missing. They voluntarily dug up their own rice paddies in order to help us try to answer questions. They let us into their homes; they let us into their history houses. They let us into their prisons, unannounced on occasion, to interview prisoners. And they actually tolerated helicopters flying in the hamlets, as they once did in a different fashion, in order to inquire of citizens, to answer the questions that had not been answered for so many years. On more than one occasion they guided us across what were quite literally mine fields.
Ultimately, the friendships that we forged and the work that we did together to resolve outstanding legacy issues led to the normalization of relationship culminating on July 11th, 1995. And just a few weeks later, then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher touched down at Hanoi on a mission of peace. He spoke to the youth of Vietnam about the future, citing an inscription on Hanoi’s Temple of Literature: “Heaven has ushered in an era of renewal.” Those words spoke powerfully to him, just as they should to all of us even today. The theme of renewal lies at the heart of our friendship. The Vietnamese have learned from their own history that we all have no permanent enemies, only friends yet to be made.
Today, when Americans hear the word Vietnam, they are able to think of a country, not a war. And that is our shared accomplishment. In the past 18 years, the wisdom of normalization has been amply proven. Vietnam has emerged as one of Asia’s great success stories. Thanks to our landmark bilateral trade agreement in 2001, two-way trade from 1995 to today has increased more than 50-fold. And per capita, incomes in Vietnam have increased almost 500 percent. Together with Vietnam and other countries from across the region, we are now working to conclude an historic Trans-Pacific Partnership, a high-standard 21st century trade agreement that will promote regional economic integration, prosperity, and opportunity for the people of all of the member countries.
As Vietnam has transformed itself, the country is now placing an increasingly significant role on regional and on global issues. We welcome Vietnam’s announcement that it intends to participate in UN peacekeeping operations in 2014 and we are now joined together helping them to prepare for their initial deployments. We are cooperating to promote maritime security and to improve our humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities. We are focusing our assistance programs on adaptation, clean energy, sustainable development in order to address Vietnam’s vulnerability to climate change, and just recently I met in Brunei at the APEC conference where we talked about the Lower Mekong Initiative and other great enterprises that we’re engaged in.
We are cooperating in education, and that is another very important bridge in our two countries’ relationship. Vietnam is an extraordinarily young society, almost 21 million people under the age of 15. Ultimately, Vietnam’s next generation needs schools that are close to home, that can better prepare Vietnamese students for competition in the era of globalization. I have long been a supporter of the program I mentioned earlier, the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, and its success demonstrates that independent U.S.-run institutions of higher learning can flourish inside Vietnam.
As we look ahead to the future of U.S.-Vietnamese – Vietnam relations, we should remember that normalization could not have occurred without honest conversation, without candor between Washington and Hanoi, even on sensitive issues such as human rights, and I am committed to building on this kind of frank and cooperative partnership that is essential to both of our countries.
Looking back on normalization, I’m struck by how many times the people committed to this process made very, very difficult, but right choices. It began with George Herbert Walker Bush, who, together with Brent Scowcroft, made courageous decisions to move the process forward and lift an embargo, and it wound up with President Clinton, who not only ultimately moved to normalization, but took the first trip of an American president in the year 2000, which I was privileged to accompany him on.
Forty-five years ago, hundreds of thousands of Americans were fighting in the fields and rivers of Vietnam. Today, hundreds of thousands of us are visiting its marketplaces and its historic sites. So we have come a long way. Let me assure you, Mr. President, we will continue to grow our relationship in the years ahead.
I might add just off the cuff, I was reading the President’s resume before greeting him and welcoming him to the United States and to the State Department, and I noticed that in 1966, he joined the Communist Party of Vietnam; in 1966, I joined the United States Navy. In 1969, he became a guerrilla leader in a district south of Saigon – and aside of Saigon; in 1969, I was in the Mekong Delta at war. Subsequently in 1984, he took on major responsibilities in Vietnam, ultimately becoming the mayor of Ho Chi Minh City and so forth; 1984, I was elected to the United States Senate and took on not so major responsibilities, but – (laughter) – I tried to upgrade that at one point.
But there’s a parallel, an interesting parallel, and now here the President is as the President of his country, and I’m privileged to serve President Obama in this capacity. So we have an opportunity to build on our past on this journey, and in that spirit, allow me to propose a toast to the health of President Sang, to the binding ties between our peoples, to the promise of renewal that is at the heart of our relationship, to Vietnam from conflict to friendship, (in Vietnamese). (Applause.)
PRESIDENT SANG: (Via interpreter) Thank you very much, Secretary John Kerry, on the very impressive remarks.
Secretary John Kerry, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to join this warm and friendly reception together with the high-level Vietnamese delegation which is hosted by Secretary John Kerry. I want to thank the U.S. Government for their warm welcome and hospitality accorded to our delegation. On this occasion, I wish to express my most sincere gratitude for the enormous contributions and untiring efforts to the growth of Vietnam-U.S. relations to Secretary John Kerry, Senator John McCain, and so many other American friends, so many that it is impossible for me to make a full count of their names, even if I spent the whole day, and ask for your forgiveness for that, and I have no doubt that you will continue to support the promotion of bilateral relations in the interest of our people.
Ladies and gentlemen, friends, following 25 years of reforms, Vietnam has graduated from underdevelopment to become a middle-income country. We have sustained a high growth rate, and achieved ahead of schedule a number of Millennium Development Goals. Our policy is geared to maintain the growth momentum, continue improving people’s life, restructure the economy, and step up administration reform and anticorruption. Externally, we’ll continue pursuing the foreign policy of positive, active international integration following the nonpermanent membership of the UN Security Council in 2008, 2009, and ASEAN chair in 2010.
We are standing for elections to a number of multilateral agencies and will participate in the UN peacekeeping forces in the foreseeable future. Vietnam earnestly wants to be a responsible, reliable member of the international community with positive contribution to addressing international issues for the maintenance of peace, stability, and cooperation in Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific. Amidst a changing regional and world landscape, the major powers, including the United States, have an important role and responsibility in dealing with hotspots in the region such as the East Sea – East China Sea and such global issues as energy security, food security, transnational crime, climate change, and so on. This has become ever more imperative. In that spirit, Vietnam welcomes the United States enhanced cooperation with the Asia Pacific for peace, stability, and development in the region.
Ladies and gentlemen, in its foreign policy, Vietnam always attaches importance to the relations with the United States, which we view as a leading partner. Bilateral relations have made great strides in the past years on the basis of positive, friendly, constructive partnership, (inaudible) cooperation, mutual respect, and mutual benefit. Our two countries’ far-reaching partnership is not just limited to bilateral framework. We have been working together on regional and global issues including those of strategic issue such as antiterrorism, maritime security and safety response to climate change. In particular, we have the shared determination to soon conclude a balanced Trans-Pacific Partnership, meeting the interest of all parties.
I’m also happy to note that economic trade ties continue to stay at the heart of bilateral relations, serving both as the cornerstone of and an engine for the overall relationship. The United States is now a leading economic trade partner and the largest export market of Vietnam. The potentials for cooperation in science, technology, education, and healthcare have been better tapped into. Our two countries have continued to maintain dialogues on issues of mutual interest, including human rights. Through dialogues, we have achieved better mutual understanding, particularly about each other’s approach and distinct cultural and historical circumstances. Vietnam has been making sustained efforts to protect and promote human rights so that the people can benefit from the finest results of the reform process which is going on,
Similar to the goal pursued by the American Administration, we have been continually improving healthcare, social, and education programs for the people, especially the poor living in remote, isolated areas and ethnic minorities. We have given priority to the development of communication and information technology which resulted in Vietnam being among countries with fastest growth of internet users. We’ve also made every effort to ensure the right of freedom of religion and belief as well as to maintain the diverse (inaudible) of cultural values of the people.
In this visit, I am accompanied by some religious dignitaries, and they have just had straightforward, open discussions with their American counterparts on religious-related issues, and I believe that these contacts and exchanges will help American friends have better understanding about the real situation in Vietnam.
Ladies and gentlemen, I believe that our two countries are presented with wonderful opportunities to take bilateral relations to a new phase of development. The two sides need to continue deepening various areas of cooperation with a strong boost even to key areas of economic, trade, investment, science, technology, education, training, overcoming war consequences, and together with other partners soon conclude the TPP.
It is also necessary to maintain straightforward and open dialogues on issues of differences. Our relations are rested on constructive, mutually beneficial cooperation, mutual respect and understanding, and the solid foundation developed in the past 18 years. With that, and the continued effort of the two governments and people, I believe that Vietnam-U.S. relations will thrive with fruitful outcomes contributing to the maintenance of peace, stability, and development in the Asia Pacific.
On this occasion, I would like to invite you to join me in a toast to the far-reaching sustained and productive Vietnam-U.S. friendship and multifaceted cooperation, to the good health of Secretary John Kerry and our distinguished guests present here. Thank you.
SECRETARY KERRY: Please, everybody, enjoy a great meal and I think a little bit of entertainment. Thank you. (Applause.)