Address by Senator John McCain
April 7, 2009
Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam
It has been more than five years since I last visited Vietnam, and on this occasion I am reminded again of the extraordinary strides Vietnam has made in recent years. Poverty has fallen dramatically, trade is up, living standards have risen, and Vietnam has normalized relations not only with the United States, but with much of the world. Perhaps emblematic of this progress – and of Vietnam’s future potential on the world stage – is Vietnam’s current membership on the United Nations Security Council.
This remarkable rise has been influenced, I believe, by the willingness here and in the United States to put the past behind us, and to embark on a gradual process of normalizing diplomatic and trade relations between our two countries. We began carefully with cooperation in the search for missing American service personnel. That cooperation, along with Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia and the end of the Cold War, fostered a new spirit in Southeast Asia, one that allowed the United States to lift the U.S. trade embargo in 1994 and normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995. My friend Pete Peterson was nominated by President Clinton to serve as America’s ambassador in Hanoi in 1996. The U.S. lifted Jackson-Vanik restrictions on Vietnam in 1998 and two years later signed a bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam – one of the most comprehensive bilateral trade agreements both countries had ever negotiated. In 2003, for the first time in nearly 30 years, a U.S. warship, the USS Vandergrift, docked in the port of Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City. A ship of peace. And three years ago, the United States extended Permanent Normal Trading Relations status to Vietnam, paving the way for its entrance into the World Trade Organization. The same year, Vietnam hosted President Bush at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Hanoi.
It has been a remarkable series of developments, and our two countries have come this very long way together. And yet we would not have come this far were it not for the support of Americans who once served in Vietnam in another time, and for the commitment of those Vietnamese officials who wished to build a better future for their people. America and Vietnam have moved on from the past. Each of us has found, in a new era, a place of friendship for a former adversary.
Today, the hardest work of normalization is behind us. The time has come, I believe, for us to move from the normalization of our bilateral relations to a modernization of our ties commensurate with Vietnam’s rising status in the region and in the world. We should not simply rest on our laurels and allow the relationship to plateau. It is time to take the next step.
The further strengthening of our relationship should occur not only because of the unprecedented economic transformation of Vietnam and the extraordinary progress of our relations in the last two decades, but also because of the historic shift of economic power from the western world to Asia. As the rise of China demonstrates so vividly, Asia is gaining in prosperity relative to the rest of the world with each passing year. In light of this phenomenon, some experts have decreed the American century a thing of the past and have declared this the “Asian century.” To call it such, however, embraces a kind of zero-sum thinking that is itself rooted in the past. U.S. and Asian ascendancy are not mutually exclusive, nor should we let them become so. If leaders on both continents grasp the opportunity inherent in this essential truth, we can usher in an unprecedented era: a 21st century that is both American and Asian. And in this new era, I believe, Vietnam will have a critical role to play.
Vietnam’s economic reforms initiated in 1986 ignited an engine of economic growth that has been the key agent of change. Your increased openness to trade has helped liberate millions of Vietnamese from poverty. This country has moved from the brink of famine in the 1980s to the world’s second-largest rice exporter and second-largest producer of coffee. In the decade that passed between 1992 and 2002, the poverty level in Vietnam was cut nearly in half. Vietnam has brought more people out of poverty, faster, than perhaps any country in history save China. This astonishing progress is the product of reforms that coupled free market principles with the industry and creativity of the Vietnamese people.
Yet today, in the midst of a global recession, we hear voices in the United States and in Asia that condemn globalization, and urge a return to the failed policies of economic isolationism that would not only delay recovery but worsen the current crisis. We must not heed them. They live in the past, and having learned none of its lessons, romanticize a future for the world that would arrest the progress of humanity by rejecting the inevitable changes and opportunities caused by the ever freer flow of goods and services in a global economy. We should not fear the interdependence of a global economy. On the contrary, we should embrace it as the best possible path toward greater prosperity for all. Open markets have been the engine of mankind’s prosperity for centuries and, by seeking the opportunities they offer, they will remain so.
In the United States, the recession and global financial crisis have encouraged the advocates of protectionism. Their influence is evident in the recently enacted “Buy American” legislation and in growing opposition to free trade agreements. The new administration, and those of us in Congress who see the folly in reversing the progress of globalization must show greater resolve in rejecting their counsel. We must advance not retreat. This includes exploring new ways to increase the bilateral trade between the U.S. and Vietnam and expanding free trade benefits to other ASEAN states. As Vietnam makes greater progress on labor issues, we should conclude a Bilateral Investment Treaty with Vietnam and bring Vietnam into the GSP program, which extends duty-free treatment to many imports from developing countries. And we should enter together the multilateral Trans Pacific Partnership free trade agreement.
Resisting the anti-globalization forces requires certain actions in Vietnam as well. By improving lawful governance and further opening this society, your already dynamic economy will thrive even more. By modernizing your infrastructure and embracing clean environmental principles, Vietnam can reap more of the benefits the global economic system offers. Such steps are, I believe, not simply desirable, but necessary.
Security and economic growth are intimately connected, and a threat to peace is a threat to prosperity. The establishment of military contacts and the visits of U.S. warships to Vietnamese ports are a great step in the right direction. Yet, as the recent harassment of the U.S.S. Impeccable by Chinese vessels indicates, we face new security challenges in this region. The United States has long stood for freedom of navigation throughout the world, and that must include the South China or East Sea. We have an interest in open sea lines of communication in this region, and in the peaceful resolution of disputes in the Spratleys, Paracels and elsewhere.
Increased U.S.-Vietnam defense cooperation serves our mutual interests. Bilaterally, and in concert with America’s other allies and partners in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia, we should explore a multitude of ways to expand our ties. We should work to increase exchanges conducted under the International Military Exchange and Training agreement signed in 2005, and continue discussions about Vietnam’s participation in UN peacekeeping operations. These steps should take place within the context of expanded dialogue between our leaders about the way in which we view the strategic environment throughout Asia.
The Vietnamese military has long enjoyed a reputation for tenacity. In reforming its economy and achieving some of the world’s highest sustained growth rates, the Vietnamese economy has become a model for developing countries across the globe. By forging close ties with a former adversary, and by exercising prudence in its Security Council role, Vietnam has illustrated its global diplomatic influence. Now, I believe, Vietnam has the chance to extend its accomplishments by pursuing progress in the political and social spheres.
This change - which includes expanding social freedoms, allowing greater freedom of expression, releasing all individuals imprisoned for peacefully expressing their views, improving human rights, and widening the scope for political activity – would be of historic magnitude. Tolerance of competing views is a sign of strength, not weakness, and if there is one trait that the people of Vietnam have exhibited over the decades, it is strength. The world has taken note of signs of political change in China, ranging from local elections to a more independent legislature to a more independent and robust judiciary. By taking steps toward greater political liberalization here, Vietnam has the chance not simply to match these accomplishments but to surpass them. You could become a model for others to emulate. And you would ensure that, over time, relations with the United States are anchored not in the shifting sands of mutual economic and security interests, but in the bedrock of shared values.
Vietnam’s leaders are the custodians of extraordinary accomplishments that in a very short time have transformed an economy and a people. You are responsible for protecting and extending those accomplishments, just as America’s leaders are responsible for encouraging the progress of our society. The last century, even with its terrible wars and untold hardships, will surely be considered great among the epochs of history for the overall advance of freedom over its opposite, prosperity over poverty, the rights of all over the privileges of a few. This task is not yet complete, however, not in Washington and not in Hanoi. History has assigned humanity’s further progress to us; to the world’s leaders who have the responsibility to see us through our present difficulties without losing faith in the principles and practices that have advanced the fortunes of mankind beyond the most hopeful expectations of previous generations. That is our shared responsibility, and it is an honor I welcome, as I welcome the privilege today of addressing a new generation of leaders in this country, who with a new generation of leaders in mine, will write a new and better chapter in the history of relations between Vietnam and the United States.