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U.S.-Vietnam Relations

Normalization at Fifteen: Progress and Promise

Essay by Senator John Kerry, July 2010
Senator John Kerry

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between America and Vietnam – a milestone that presents an opportunity to take stock of how far we have traveled in our relationship and the steps each country can take in the next miles of our journey. 

It is easy to forget that normalization did not come quickly or easily.  It was a painstaking process that required vision, hard work, and compromise. Those advocating normalization risked being labeled traitors in both countries.  Paradoxically, forging peace and reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam was ultimately led by those who had been most engaged in waging war – the veterans.  Particularly in the United States, the veterans’ organizations and the families of Vietnam War veterans, many of whom endured years of heart-wrenching uncertainty about the fate of their loved ones, provided the critical margin of political support for the normalization “roadmap” that has brought us to today.

Twenty years ago, I was proud to join with my fellow Vietnam War veterans in Congress, particularly Senators John McCain, Chuck Robb, Bob Kerrey, and Chuck Hagel, and Representative Pete Peterson, to help lead the process of normalization that culminated on July 11, 1995.   On that day, then-President Bill Clinton noted that the advocates of normalization were a diverse lot – Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative – who had their differences over the war.  What we shared was our determination to bind up the nation’s wounds and build a new start with a former adversary.  We wanted to arrive at a day when Americans would hear the word ‘Vietnam’ and think of a country – not just a war.

In the past 15 years, the wisdom of normalization has been amply proven.  Vietnam has emerged as one of Asia’s success stories.  The economic reform policies collectively known as doi moi (“change and newness”) ushered in a period of rapid growth.  Since 1995, Vietnam’s real GDP growth has averaged over 7% per year, second only to China.  Millions of Vietnamese have been lifted out of poverty, infrastructure has been improved, and basic services have been extended into remote regions of the country. 

Politically, Vietnam has been integrated into a region from which it was once estranged.  The expansion of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to include Vietnam in 1995 began the transformation of ASEAN from an anti-communist alliance into a vehicle to promote regional integration and cohesion.  This year that process has come full circle with Vietnam serving as chair of ASEAN.  Vietnam’s domestic politics are also gradually changing, becoming more open and transparent.  As the most recent State Department human rights report notes, the National Assembly is playing, “…an increasingly independent role as a forum for local and provincial concerns and as a critic of local and national corruption and inefficiency, and [has] made progress in improving transparency in the legal and regulatory systems.” 

Now is a time of great promise in U.S.-Vietnam relations.  Overlapping economic and strategic interests provide opportunities to build on common interests in the areas of trade, education, environmental protection, and security. Our trade and investment ties have long served as the engine to propel our relationship forward, with U.S. economic engagement helping to spur Vietnam’s rapid transformation.  Fifteen years ago, there was almost no U.S. investment in Vietnam, and bilateral trade hovered modestly around $451 million annually.  Last year, America became Vietnam’s largest foreign investor, and two-way trade topped $15 billion.  We have made great progress from the days when Senator McCain and I were struggling to lift a 25 year-old trade embargo with Vietnam. But we can do more. 

The United States started negotiations this spring with Vietnam and six other partners on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) trade agreement to create a high-standard, 21st  Century trade deal with strong and transparent labor, environmental, and intellectual property provisions that can provide a platform for region-wide economic integration.  Vietnam’s increasingly open and rule-based economy continues to attract U.S. businesses.  Given the impressive results of its economic reforms, I hope Vietnam’s government will continue to pursue market-oriented development, fight corruption, strengthen intellectual property protections, and enhance its labor standards. 

Cooperation in the field of education is another important bridge between our two societies. Weaknesses in Vietnam’s education sector still constrain its economic growth and are also an impediment to improving government services and the rule of law.  There is a shortage not only of engineers and scientists, but also of trained lawyers and judges.  In April, I met with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dzung, and we committed to build upon our current efforts to promote systemic education reforms.  Our two countries have already made great strides in this area.  Fifteen years ago, fewer than 800 Vietnamese studied in the United States.  Today, that figure has grown to 13,000.  The Vietnam Education Foundation, which I helped establish, has placed 306 Graduate Fellows at 70 top U.S. universities.  I am currently working on legislation with my colleagues in Congress to strengthen this program and ensure that it continues to build bridges across the Pacific while serving as a catalyst to enhance Vietnam’s higher education system.

Vietnam is a young country, with 22 million people (roughly one-fourth of the population) under 15 years of age.  Ultimately, Vietnam’s next generation needs schools close to home that observe “best practices” in education and can better prepare Vietnamese students for competition in the era of globalization.  I have long been a supporter of the Fulbright School in Ho Chi Minh City, and its success demonstrates that independent, U.S.-run institutions of higher learning can flourish inside Vietnam.  I hope that as part of its commitment to strengthening Vietnam’s education sector, the government will recognize the societal and commercial value of opening up its education sector to foreign universities and eliminating existing restrictions on independent scientific and technical research, writing, and discourse. 

Another area where I hope our two countries can redouble our cooperation is on the environment.  Recent United Nations and Asian Development Bank reports – along with Vietnamese government studies – describe how rising sea levels, the increased frequency and intensity of typhoons, and drought and salt-water intrusion could affect Vietnam, with its heavily-populated, low-lying areas.  I have discussed the potential economic and food security consequences with Vietnam’s leaders, and they appreciate the challenges posed by climate change. 

It is time to turn our mutual concern into joint action.  The United States stands ready to work with Vietnam in areas like data collection and dissemination, renewable  energy, and clean coal technology to help it adapt to climate change.  Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined with the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to create the Lower Mekong Initiative, as a way to enhance regional cooperation on the environment, health, and education.  This spring, the United States and Vietnam held the first meeting of the U.S.-Vietnam Climate Change Working Group, and later reached a preliminary agreement to expand civil nuclear power in a manner intended to maximize nuclear safety and security and minimize proliferation risk.  

While we work to deepen and broaden our cooperation in areas like economics, education, the environment, and health, we are also now working together on security issues, a relationship that would have been beyond our grasp just a few years ago.  At President Barack Obama’s nuclear security summit last April, and again this June in Hanoi, senior U.S. officials have engaged with their Vietnamese counterparts on matters of nonproliferation, counterterrorism, humanitarian and disaster relief, and maritime security.  Last year, the head of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security made his first-ever visit to Washington as part of the gradual expansion of contacts between our national security bureaucracies.  

I have seen what this kind of dialogue can accomplish:  Almost 20 years ago, I led efforts with Senator McCain to make a full accounting of U.S. Prisoners-of-War and persons Missing-in-Action (MIA), and to help American servicemen suffering from exposure to Agent Orange.  Some called our search as an “unglamorous task that nobody else wanted.”  But following 14 personal visits to Vietnam, a review of thousands of documents and photographs, hundreds of subpoenas, and testimony from family members, leaders of veterans’ groups, intelligence officials, and diplomats, our investigations gradually helped build trust and establish the habits of cooperation that would pave the way for normalization.  In the process of providing answers to hundreds of waiting families in what became known as the most comprehensive, exhaustive search in the history of warfare, we were able to generate the consensus needed to ending the embargo and establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam.  Closer to home, our work helped the nation come to grips with unresolved issues that had lingered for two decades and to begin healing the wounds of war.

I am proud of these efforts, and am pleased that we continue to work together to address outstanding war issues, including beginning to explore ways to help Vietnam account for its own MIA, which by far exceeded our own.  Today, the debate continues over the human impact of exposure to dioxin, a contaminant found in Agent Orange, and I know the U.S. government is working closely with its Vietnamese counterpart to address associated environmental and potential health concerns. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and I are trying to do our part by seeking funds for the remediation of a contaminated area at the Danang International Airport once used by U.S. forces.  

As Vietnam has transformed itself, the country is increasingly playing a significant role on global and regional issues, serving on the UN Security Council last year and, currently, as ASEAN’s chairman.  For its part, the United States is reengaging with Southeast Asia under the leadership of President Obama, and views Vietnam as an important pillar in its cooperation with the region and institutions like ASEAN and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC). 

As ASEAN chair, Vietnam has an opportunity to strengthen the organization’s role as a regional problem-solver on issues ranging from climate change to maritime security to regional hot spots like Burma and North Korea.  When it comes to Burma, Vietnam’s own reform experience and its related path to normalization can be instructive.  As one of a select group of countries that maintains cordial relations with North Korea, Vietnam is also well-positioned to encourage more responsible behavior consistent with international rules and, in the meantime, to urge all ASEAN members to strictly enforce existing UN Security Council resolutions. 

As we look ahead to the next 15 years of U.S-Vietnam relations, we should remember that normalization could not have occurred without candor between Washington and Hanoi, even on sensitive issues such as human rights.  I am concerned by recent steps taken by Vietnam’s Communist Party to limit political rights and curtail press and Internet freedoms in advance of the January 2011 Party Congress.  Too often, the conduct of local officials is not in keeping with commitments made by Vietnam’s central government with respect to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion.  The American people expect their elected representatives to evaluate Vietnam as a friend and partner based on many factors, including the Hanoi government’s respect for international human rights norms.  Having been there when our relationship was at its nadir and seen how far we have come, I am confident that we will be able to narrow our differences in these areas and build a more mature partnership through dialogue and engagement. 

Forty years ago, hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women were fighting in Vietnam.  Last year, 350,000 Americans visited Vietnam as tourists and to do business.  We have come a long way.  The future of U.S.-Vietnam relations can and should be a bright one given our common interests.   I look forward to working to ensure that the next 15 years will be even more successful than the last.