Speeches: Remarks at University of Social Sciences and Humanities Under Vietnam National University, Hanoi

Xin Chao. Good morning. Rector Minh, thank you so much for your warm introduction. And thanks to all of you for this very, very generous hospitality and the extraordinarily warm welcome. It’s very much appreciated and very moving to me, to Ambassador Osius and to all of our team here from the United States. It’s a great privilege today to visit the University of Social Sciences and Humanities under Vietnam National University Hanoi, which has done so much to educate and prepare successive generations of Vietnamese leaders. I have no doubt that future Ministers, future Ambassadors of Vietnam and maybe some entrepreneurs and artists are in this hall today.

I also want to thank my good friend, the Ambassador Ted Osius, who may very well have set a record for hiking, biking, climbing, trekking his way to meet as many people as possible across this beautiful, vibrant, and dynamic nation. Ted and I actually have known each other since we were in university together in the United States—I won’t say how many years ago. In fact, we first met in the halls of college, and I think that’s a reminder to all of you that the friends that you make here in these halls will last you a lifetime.

This is my second trip to Vietnam and my sixth to the overall region in a little over one year. I am very, very happy to be back. In fact, I got to spend the entire morning with young people, a real treat when your hair begins to get a little bit of grey like mine—or, as my wife would say, a lot of grey like mine. Before coming over here to the university, I sat down with some young innovators and entrepreneurs at Vietnam Silicon Valley. Nothing reflects the limitless potential of the future as much as the wide-open spaces of innovators working together to start the next Google, the next Facebook, or the FPT.

In our discussion, we talked about their ideas, their ventures, even their failures, and I have to tell you, if I closed my eyes, the young people I met this morning sounded just like their brothers and sisters in Silicon Valley, California—the exact same energy, the same passion, the same talent, the same curiosity, the same occasional frustrations with government for moving more slowly than they do, something we’re familiar with in the United States.

Just a short while ago, I actually visited the Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley in the United States, and I think by walking in the door I probably raised the average age by several decades. Someone had to remind me to take off my tie—I was the only person wearing a tie. Everyone had more devices than they had hands. One young man swept by on a hoverboard. He almost flew across the floor. So all of you would have fit in perfectly at Facebook in Silicon Valley.

Your generation in Vietnam is among the most wired in the world—hungry for opportunity, brimming with breakthrough ideas. You’re also citizens of one of the youngest countries in the world. The median age here is 29, and early 40 million people are 25 years old or younger. You’re growing up in a world where you see things not as they once were or even as they are, but how they could be.

The future is yours to make and to remake.

This is something that our two nations have some experience in.

This past year, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam. Over the summer, President Obama received General Secretary Trong for the first-ever visit to our nation’s capital by a General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

In their meeting, they acknowledged the difficult history between our countries and the differences in political philosophy, institutions, and principles that remain. But, because of leaders of both parties in the United States—leaders like President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry, and Senator John McCain—and leadership here in Vietnam, we are building a constructive relationship built on mutual respect, trust, and the common aspirations of our two peoples.

Today, the United States and Vietnam are deepening and broadening our ties in areas the we couldn’t even imagine, that we couldn’t even talk about—much less do together—just a few years ago. Regional security. Military cooperation. Trade and business. Human rights. Education. Climate change. Global health. Energy security. Disaster response. Peacekeeping. In every one of those areas, our partnership is growing stronger every day.

Rising pace, strength, and reach of our cooperation is not about forgetting our history.

It’s about learning from it.

When President Obama came into office seven years ago, he made it clear that he would not let the conflicts and animosities of the past dictate our future. He believed, he believes, that no two nations are fated to be adversaries. And our purposeful, principled diplomacy could open new avenues for engagement.

That is exactly what happened.

When General Secretary Trong visited the White House in July, he said to President Obama, and I quote, “The past cannot be changed, but the future depends on our action, and it is our responsibility to ensure a bright future.”

It is that future—indeed, that responsibility—that I want to talk to you about today.

This morning at Vietnam’s Silicon Valley, I explained why someone like me, who is in the business of diplomacy, is so interested in meeting young people, entrepreneurs, innovators, students—and why was I so eager to better understand what we can do to support them, to support all of you.

The first reason is actually pretty simple. We need your help. The challenges that we face in the world today are beyond the capacity of any governments—let alone any single government—to solve on their own.

The world we live in is more fluid and fraught with complexity than ever before—as the growing interdependence of the global economy and the rapid change of pace and change links people, groups, and governments in unprecedented ways, incentivizing new forms of cooperation but also creating shared vulnerabilities.

It’s a world where epidemics cut swiftly across borders and hackers across firewalls; where violent extremists scar lasting scar communities and climate change damages our planet; where an unprecedented number of migrants and refugees are risking their lives every single day on the high seas from the Andaman to the Mediterranean try to find economic opportunity or sanctuary from war or persecution.

These global challenges are demanding fundamentally new solutions informed by the tools, the expertise, the imagination of those outside of government—in the private sector, in civil society, in faith communities, and in universities.

If we are going to meet the great challenges of our time—the challenges of rising seas and warming temperatures, of protracted conflicts and persistent poverty, of violent extremists and cyber terrorists—if we are going to meet those challenges, then we are going to need the passion and the talent of your generation—the innovation generation.

You are part of a generation whose DNA is encoded with an instinct to explore the world, to forge new relationships between cultures and countries.

You are part of a global community of visionaries who once dared imagine that the power of a satellite could be captured in the palm of our hands. Or the possibility of a communications platform could connect billions around globe in real-time.

This is a powerful legacy, but it’s not an inevitable one. Places like Silicon Valley didn’t just emerge suddenly out of nowhere. The ability to innovate is not gifted. It is learned.

You need the right ingredients to foster an environment in which ideas can thrive competitively, capital is readily accessible, and entrepreneurs can take risks without fear of losing everything that they have.

Supporting emerging ap developers, starting business accelerators, opening new makerspaces is important but it’s not sufficient for Vietnam—or any nation—to fully seize the benefits of innovation.

So that’s the other reason I’ve given priority to young entrepreneurs here and, indeed, everywhere that I visit. The principles that make an innovation ecosystem possible, the ingredients that make it flourish, are something that all nations and all citizens share a stake in cultivating and upholding.

An education grounded in critical thinking and inspired by the free exchange of ideas.

A rules-based economic and trading architecture that is built on transparency and competition.

A respect for the rights, freedom, and dignity of all people.

And a society invested in maintaining the peace and stability throughout the world.

That’s why—at the heart and core of our partnership—is a commitment to Vietnam’s future as a global leader in technology and innovation. Not simply because it will give your generation and those that follow the skills they need to succeed in the global marketplace but because the characteristics that make innovation and entrepreneurship possible are those that define a world that we most want to live in—a world in which all citizens enjoy the opportunity to pursue their aspirations and to excel.

First and foremost, this requires promoting education. But not just any education. Young people must be allowed, indeed they must be encouraged, to argue, to criticize, to challenge the world around them with a fresh perspective, a healthy skepticism, a readiness to debate and the freedom to fail and freedom to fail. Many years ago, there was a famous piece of graffiti on a wall in the United States. Someone had written this graffiti and it said, “Question authority” and then someone else had written on top of that graffiti, “Why?” That is the spirit we need to see in our education systems.

Vietnam has a strong legacy of commitment to education—with impressive literacy rates, roughly equal enrollment between girls and boys, and increasingly developed network of higher education and research institutions.

But as Secretary Kerry said when he was here in Hanoi in August, it’s not enough for our young graduates today to know what to think. They need to learn how to think.

They must have access to an education system that encourages critical thinking, rewards creativity, prizes experimentation, and provides extensive and diverse funding opportunities for research.

The innovation super-highway runs on it. And the pressures of the global economy demand it.

That’s why we are working so closely to help Vietnam foster an education system that invests in the capital of its people and its citizens. We supported early education for ethnic minority children in central Vietnam and forged higher education partnerships to help transform education from theory-based, rote learning to active, project-based teaching.

Through an initiative called PEER, Vietnamese and American researchers are working together to advance biodiversity conservation in some of Vietnam’s most fragile ecosystems.

And, right here at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, we work together to equip a new cohort of social workers with the training and with the knowledge that they need to provide services to marginalized communities all across Vietnam.

We’re very pleased that later this year, Vietnamese students will have a chance to expand their horizons even further when Fulbright University Vietnam opens its doors in Ho Chi Minh City. Built on an American model of education, this university will emphasize academic independence, inspire innovation, and help new generations of Vietnamese seize the opportunities before them.

Education is not only about what you learn inside the classroom. We also made it a priority to extend opportunities for Vietnamese students to study abroad and connect with other young people in this region and around the world. Today, nearly 19,000 Vietnamese students study in the United States. That’s a 40 percent increase in just seven years. Vietnam is one of the top ten nations sending students to the United States.

Through the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative network we’re offering scholarships, workshops, seed money for community projects to help young people turn their ideas into action. Since President Obama launched YSEALI just three years ago, more than 67,000 young people have become a part of its network, including nearly 11,000 Vietnamese. This is a community whose size and impact will only continue to grow, continue to influence, continue to impress.

Second, entrepreneurship and innovation thrive in a policy environment that sets the foundation for inclusive and sustainable growth through greater transparency, the rule of law, the protection of intellectual property and predictable regulations that enable all companies—big and small—to compete on a level playing field.

Vietnam’s economic transformation from an isolated agricultural economy to a globally integrated success story that has lifted millions of people out of poverty in two decades has been nothing short of remarkable.

The task now is to consolidate these gains and ensure that everyone shares in their benefits by creating a competitive, open, predictable business environment that allows startups to launch and companies to grow.

Today, that future feels closer than it’s ever been because of the 21st century Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The result of more than five years of negotiations among a dozen Pacific-rim countries, this historic partnership—of which Vietnam is an original signatory—will bring 40 percent of the global economy and nearly half of ASEAN together behind the highest labor, environment, and intellectual property protections in the world.

It will solidify an economic arena where every participant—however big, however small—agrees to fight bribery and corruption, agrees to the formation of independent trade unions and commits to enforcement of environmental safeguards.

TPP will mean allowing the free flow of ideas and data and promote additional standards that are critical for building the foundation of a common ASEAN digital economy.

It will mean simplifying the process to start a new business and streamlining ways to resolve business disputes.

And it means easing the transfer of technology from university research to the private sector and the movement of people between jobs and different fields.

You know by gold star standards, Vietnam stands the most to benefit from TPP. It has the potential to raise Vietnam’s GDP by almost ten percent and exports by thirty percent by the year 2030.

Ambassador Osius has described to me how American companies—confident that TPP will enter into force—are already eagerly pursuing opportunities here in Vietnam across every sector—from aviation to energy, from smart city technology to healthcare. By deepening its commitment to reform, Vietnam is poised to give these companies and entrepreneurs the confidence that they need to help make Vietnam’s future as transformational as its recent past.

Third, the respect for human ideas cannot be divorced from the respect for human dignity.

The freedom to speak, to worship, to assemble, to dissent, to challenge, to protest, to take part in the political and economic decisions that affect one’s life—these are essential elements for any nation that wants to unleash the talent of its citizens. Indeed, exercising these freedoms peacefully is the highest form of patriotism.

A vibrant culture of entrepreneurship is almost unimaginable without a foundation of rights and freedoms upon which citizens feel able to pursue their ambitions, to express their opinions, to bring their ideas to life.

The people of Vietnam know this and, because newspapers and TV stations still face censorship and legal restrictions, young Vietnamese have turned to social media and blogs to read news and to make their voices heard.

In response to the demands of Vietnamese society, the Government has made some progress in human rights, ratifying the Convention against Torture and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and agreed to allow independent trade unions for the first time in modern history.

It has also made clear commitments to bring its domestic laws into synch with international human rights obligations and with Vietnam’s own constitution, which guarantees key human rights and freedoms.

We commend the Government’s efforts to consult with a range of local religious and civil society stakeholders during the drafting of a new religion law. We hope the final draft will protect the rights of all those who seek to freely exercise their faith.

We urge the government to release all political prisoners and cease harassment, arrests and prosecutions of anyone—journalists, bloggers, civil society activists or students—for exercising their internationally recognized rights. No one should be imprisoned for peacefully expressing political views.

We also encourage the government to quickly and impartially investigate allegations of police abuse, which aggressively feeds a sense of injustice and erodes social stability.

Every nation has to chart its own course to self-government. No nation has found a perfect path, including the United States. In my own country, we often find that the results of our efforts do not meet our own expectations and our own actions fall short of our ideals.

But the measure of our courage as citizens, the measure of our resilience as governments, the measure of our strength as nations is how we face this challenge—whether we retreat to practices of repression and intimidation or whether we confront our own imperfections with honesty, with openness, with transparency.

The consequences of this choice are playing out across the world today, and the results could not be clearer. Advancing human rights and fundamental freedoms is not a cause for vulnerability or insecurity. To the contrary, it is our greatest reservoir of strength and our greatest guarantor of stability as free and innovative nations.

Fourth and finally, a thriving innovation ecosystem must be deeply conscious of and connected to the world around it.

The business plans that you write at the American Center, the collaborations you form at Silicon Valley Vietnam, they might not feel global in nature, but neither did Facebook when Mark Zuckerberg built a social network in his college dormitory room for Boston-area students.

The idea, the very concept of an ecosystem is that it is a community—a vast network of interconnections that allow us to influence and inspire each other and require us to take responsibility for one another.

Vietnam’s transformation—like that of so many nations—has been supported and even accelerated by an international, rules-based order dedicated to the progress of every nation.

The opportunities that this order provides—indeed the very prosperity and stability that our economies and societies enjoy—confer upon each of us an obligation to uphold its principles, defend its norms, to ensure its standards are not diluted.

That’s why the United States and Vietnam are increasingly collaborating on a range of issues of global importance—from international peacekeeping to wildlife trafficking to maritime security, from climate change to civil nuclear energy to global health.

We applaud Vietnam’s pledge at President Obama’s Peacekeeping Summit last year to deploy a medical hospital and engineers in support of UN peacekeeping missions around the world.

We also want Vietnam to be able to better respond to natural disasters right here in the Asia Pacific.

Last year, the USNS Mercy—one of two hospital ships in the American fleet—visited Danang and participated in the first-ever civilian-military disaster drill and planning exercise with local and national authorities. It was a great success.

And we have increasingly productive relationships in maritime security. Our Navies have deepened their cooperation in areas like search and rescue and ocean safety, and also provide boats, training, and equipment to the Vietnamese Coast Guard to allow it to uphold international law and fight transnational crime.

The United States and Vietnam share an interest in maintaining peace and stability in the region. So does China. But its massive land reclamation projects in the South China Sea and the increasing militarization of these outposts fuels regional tension and raises serious questions about China’s intentions.

The South China Sea—or as you call it the East Sea—is one of the most important trade routes in the world, and it succeeds because international law promotes the rights and freedoms of all countries, regardless of their size, regardless of their strength.

We welcome China’s peaceful rise and participation in this rules-based international system. We mean that. We have sought to broaden and deepen our cooperation with China—an approach that has led to real progress on important issues from climate change to the Ebola response to nonproliferation.

But we will not hesitate to address our differences forthrightly and directly. On the margins of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington just recently, President Obama reiterated the importance to all countries of unimpeded commerce and the rights and freedoms of navigation and overflight.

The United States takes no position on the merits of the different and competing territorial claims, but we have a strong stake in the way those claims are advanced.

We call on China—as we call on all nations—to respect the Arbitral Tribunal decision on the Philippines-China case as legally binding, when it is issued; to demonstrate good faith by clarifying its maritime claims in accordance with international law; to uphold freedom of navigation; to commit to peacefully resolve differences, including through rules-based mechanisms, like arbitration and not through unilateral action; and to agree to engage in serious diplomacy and a diplomatic process to develop a shared understanding of how to behave in disputed areas.

In the meantime, the United States will defend our national interests and support our allies and partners in the region. We are not looking for bases. But we will continue to sail, to fly, to operate anywhere that international law allows.

Our vision for the future of the region is clear—it’s one where disputes are settled openly and in accordance with the rule of law, where businesses excel, where innovation thrives, and opportunities abound especially for young people like yourselves across the region.

In May, when Air Force One touches down on Vietnamese soil and President Obama greets the people of Vietnam, he will prove, once again, that former adversaries can become the firmest of partners.

The President will likely not be alone on that trip.

At his side will likely be a soldier whose character was forged in the bitterest of war between our nations and whose excruciating experiences guided him to become one of our greatest diplomats of peace and one of our greatest Secretaries of State… John Kerry.

Inspired by the leadership of President Obama and Secretary Kerry and General Secretary Trong, we can imagine a future twenty years from now where our partnership will be as self-evident as our common interests and values.

Where there are not just 19,000 Vietnamese studying in the United States—but 90,000, or even more.

Where our economies are interwoven and our cities directly connected.

Where we work together to pioneer new solutions to age-old challenges like poverty and pandemics.

And where we stand together to uphold peace and a well-established rules-based order.

I know that you will do more than inherit this future. You—all of you in this room—you are going to build this future.

I believe you will take responsibility for it.

And nothing gives me greater confidence and hope for the prosperity, and the security, and the dignity of our two nations and the world beyond than the people, the young people, the future in this room.

Thank you so very much.