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Vietnamese National Defense Academy
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, National Defense Academy, Hanoi, Vietnam, Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Thank you very much. Lieutenant General [Nguyen The] Tri [Superintendent, National Defense Academy], Deputy Superintendent Major General [Tran Van] Hung, Major General Vu Tan, [United States] Ambassador [to Vietnam, Pete] Peterson, members of the armed forces, distinguished guests.

I am pleased to be with you this morning as the first American Secretary of Defense to visit Vietnam in nearly three decades. I welcome this historic opportunity to speak to you about the relationship between the United States and Vietnam, and to address America’s military presence and engagement in Asia.

More than a half century ago, during the final days of the Second World War, American and Vietnamese forces stood together. American medics treated Vietnamese partisans, who, in turn, rescued downed American pilots. Today, in fact, preserved in a museum in this city is a small artifact of that distant time, a U.S. Army-issued compass that was used by your leader to guide his way during those days. So today, in full view of a shared history of both pride and pain, I stand before you on behalf of the United States Department of Defense to advance the interests of both our nations, in the hope that we may be guided by our common interests.

A great soldier from my home state of Maine in America, from basically my hometown, General Joshua Chamberlian, once said of those who had faced one another in battle, "Waking memories bind us together like no other." Bound together by our memories of the past, yet recognizing the differences that remain, the United States has resolved to move forward with Vietnam in a manner that serves our mutual interests in regional stability, security, and prosperity.

For Americans, our most sacred duty is to account for the remains of our missing countrymen. Indeed, as it is for all people, the fullest possible record is a solemn obligation. It is a responsibility that we owe to them for the sacrifice they made in our name. I want to say that the United States is grateful for the assistance that Vietnam has provided in this very difficult and delicate task, assistance that I had the opportunity to see yesterday on my visit to a recovery site just outside Hanoi.

For more than a decade now, the American and Vietnamese militaries, have worked together in an accounting that’s unprecedented in history, an accounting that has brought closure to families whose pain has endured for decades. The restoration of the ties between our nations is an outgrowth of this process, and part of an ongoing effort by the United States to enhance our bilateral security relationships throughout Asia.

The United States is engaged in the Asian-Pacific region because we recognize its strategic significance and its growing promise and prosperity in this new century. The United States is also engaged with nations in the Asia-Pacific region because we are a Pacific nation. The future of the United States is linked with Asia across the Pacific just as surely as it is bound with Europe across the Atlantic.

Promoting our common goals of stability, security and prosperity in Asia, rests upon several pillars. First and foremost, the United States will remain forward deployed and actively engaged across Asia. There is no more powerful illustration of the importance of the stabilizing U.S. military presence than the economic crisis of the late 1990s, which would have led to a security crisis. I would have you consider the security vacuum that could have developed without the U.S. presence. How would that void have been filled and by whom? In short, our security engagement and military capability are an unshakable component of regional peace and stability.

Another critical pillar of the enduring Asian security architecture is our bilateral relationships with regional allies and friends. For example, the U.S.–Japan Security Alliance has been, and will remain, critical to the security of the region. As I have on many occasions, our alliance is not designed to isolate any nation but rather to ensure stability for all nations of the region.

The U.S.- Korea Alliance will remain another indispensable element of regional peace and stability, both now and in the future. The North Korean programs to develop weapons of mass destruction and long range missiles remain a very serious concern. Our goal is to build upon the 1994 Agreed Framework to stop all nuclear activities and long-range missile programs. If these programs continue, North Korea will be even further isolated than it is today. But if North Korea verifiably gives up its missile programs, it will lead the way to a normalized relationship with the United States that would benefit all of the region.

Australia continues to serve as the critical southern anchor of the U.S. Pacific presence. We have a re-energized alliance with Australia that’s helping to ensure that our presence is flexible and that we’re able to adapt to evolving challenges, such as the recent mission in East Timor.

U.S. military relations with the Philippines are dramatically improving as well. We have restored closer military cooperation with combined exercises, training, and ship visits. [These are] the first steps in a journey that’s going to see our two democracies grow even closer in the years to come.

Our alliance with Thailand continues to be an essential part of our strategy for confronting transnational threats such as drug trafficking, and, again, in the multinational efforts in our mission to East Timor.

And now if I could turn to China. I would like to thank you in advance for your patience in listening to my presentation. I would like to say a few words about China and then talk about U.S.-Vietnam relations. I didn’t realize that my first speech was going to be my longest, but I appreciate your patience.

Of course, for the United States, the greatest challenge and greatest opportunity is presented by China. It’s in our mutual interest of both the United States and China to seek a durable, stable, and mature relationship. Indeed, there simply is no substitute for constructive, clear-headed American engagement with China. We cannot fully address the great challenges in Asia -- strengthening the region's economic recovery, maintaining a peaceful, stable, nuclear-free Korean Peninsula, or reducing recent tensions across the Taiwan Straits -- without the largest Asian nation.

The overarching question today is not whether China will assume an even greater role in the international arena. The question is when and what kind of a role China will play. By engaging China [we hope to] avoid any self-fulfilling prophecies of inevitable confrontation. We hope to encourage China to step forward as a cooperative great nation, a nation that joins America and our regional allies and friends in recognizing the common interests we all share in a stable environment that promotes mutual security and prosperity.

In that same spirit of cooperation, the United States has reached out to your nation. There are three principles which will guide U.S. policy in our security relationship with Vietnam: that we develop our security ties in tandem, or in concert, with our overall bilateral relationship; that our security relationship remains transparent so that no nation misunderstands our intentions, and; as I noted, accounting for Americans still missing in action will continue to be our highest priority.

In our recovery efforts, our nations have found the seeds of further cooperation. By helping the families of the missing, we have helped to establish greater working ties, and we can step cautiously forward in those areas where we have mutual interests. We are very encouraged that our recovery efforts have led to broader contacts between our armed forces.

We are pleased by Vietnam’s participation in the Asia-Pacific Center in Hawaii, for the first time, sending students, future military leaders, to share their experiences and build relationships with officers of fellow Asian nations. Both of our nations have also gained from the bilateral exchanges that have allowed American and Vietnamese military personnel and academics to engage in direct and open dialogue. We have benefited from our discussions yesterday with your Defense Minister and Prime Minister as well as the upcoming discussions later today with the Foreign Minister and your President. We are also encouraged by your participation in multi-lateral dialogues such as the ASEAN Regional Forum. Indeed, our mutual prosperity depends on a Pacific region in which regional issues are resolved, not by confrontation, but by cooperation.

In closing, I would like to call upon the words of a revered American veteran of our conflict, who himself returned here a few years ago, Admiral James Stockdale. He once wrote that "history gives perspective to the problems of the present."

Indeed, to understand the way forward, we must always, as nations, understand and honor the past. As was said by one of my country’s greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln, in the shadow of a very terrible conflict on our own soil, we must "care for those who have borne the battle." Let’s move forward with understanding. In cautious, but certain, steps our two nations can work together, where common purpose allows, to create a better future for our peoples.

I have come to Vietnam because the United States believes that the security of both of our nations can be enhanced by working together. Together in partnership, and with other nations of this region, we can write a new history of peace and prosperity. And again, let me thank you for the opportunity to present to you our views.