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Remarks by Secretary Gates at Vietnam National University

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates
October 11, 2010

                Thank you, Dr. Giang, for that kind introduction.  I’m pleased that my first visit to Hanoi as Secretary of Defense coincides with the city’s 1,000 year anniversary.  It is a special opportunity for me to be here at Vietnam National University in no small part because, before I became Secretary of Defense, I was President of Texas A&M University in Texas for four and a half years. 

                Measured against the backdrop of an entire millennium, the relationship between our two peoples over the past half-century has been relatively brief -- a small section of a vast tapestry.  Yet think of the historical consequences of this relationship, and about how dramatically it has transformed in such a short period of time.  A decade of conflict and bloodshed between our nations has given way to prospering bilateral relations now marking their fifteenth year. 

                This partnership is, in my view, a testament to the strength of both of our countries and an example for the world.  Wars end.  Nations wise enough to put past bitterness and heartbreak behind them can find in each other future friends and partners. 

                There is no doubt that the war left an indelible imprint on both our peoples.  But by addressing its legacies together, our two nations have been able to demonstrate how you can build upon the past without being bound to repeat it.  It was our commitment to work together to find the missing from the war, and to address the traumas still felt by those in and near the conflict, that provided the first opportunity for our countries to engage.  And it was this initial cooperation that led us to where we are today -- with a vibrant relationship that spans a range of issues -- trade and investment, education and health, and most relevant to my remarks, security and defense. 

                I am here today as the third United States Secretary of Defense to visit Hanoi over the last decade.  In that span of time, we have developed a real bilateral defense relationship.  High-level exchanges by U.S. and Vietnamese military officials and defense leaders -- including those gathered here today -- are now frequent.  This occasion provides us the opportunity to reflect on how this relationship has grown, where it is going, and what it can contribute to peace and stability in the entire region -- in particular, through our shared effort to enhance regional multilateral cooperation. 

                The transformation of our relationship over the past decades, in the aftermath of the war, was a process led by the veterans of that very conflict.  The divide that existed between our two countries was slowly but surely bridged by veterans on both sides, who felt duty-bound to find a proper resting place for their fallen comrades.   In the earliest days after the war’s end, the Vietnamese government returned the remains of some U.S. service members as a gesture of goodwill.  However, it would take the work of American veterans and their families, some of whom traveled here at their own expense looking for their fallen friends and loved ones, to bring attention to this issue in the United States.  Then, in 1987, Army General John Vessey, a Vietnam veteran and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to Hanoi at the behest of President Reagan and met with government officials, working out an agreement to begin what would become sustained joint U.S.-Vietnamese search operations the following year.  Later, in 1995, veterans of the conflict serving in the U.S. Congress -- such as Senators Kerry and McCain -- supported President Clinton in his push to normalize relations.  And our first Ambassador in Hanoi, Pete Peterson, was himself a former prisoner of war.

                We have a long, deep, and abiding commitment to locate those missing in action.  It fulfills a sacred trust to our fallen service members and families, and embodies the principle of leave no man or woman behind that is critical to our men and women serving today.  Vietnam has provided crucial assistance, and we look forward to continued cooperation in this area. 

                Together, we have completed almost 100 Joint Field Activities since 1998, leading to the recovery, repatriation, and identification of the remains of over 600 Americans.  Our experts bring the equipment and techniques and go out into the field, working in close cooperation with the Government of Vietnam and local Vietnamese to undertake the painstaking task of finding and recovering American remains.  We also provide resources and technical expertise to Vietnam as it undertakes the same sacred task.  During General Thanh’s visit to the Pentagon in December last year, I expressed my thanks for his decision to provide access to 13 new sites for joint POW/MIA operations in previously restricted military areas.  And I similarly appreciate his decision last month to provide access to four additional sites and hope we can expand cooperation on this front even further.

                This difficult but essential work entails shared risks and losses.  Almost a decade ago, a helicopter carrying a joint U.S. -- Vietnamese team on its way to investigate a site in Quang Binh Province crashed, killing all on board.  We honor the sacrifice of those 16 Vietnamese and American patriots lost in the line of duty, and plans are being developed by our two nations to commemorate the 10th anniversary of that tragedy next April. 

                Together, we’ve taken other steps to address war-legacy issues in ways that deepen our relationship, build Vietnam’s internal capabilities and -- most importantly -- help improve and even save peoples’ lives. These efforts include the Leahy War Victims Fund, which the U.S. has used since 1989 to help disabled Vietnamese citizens and their families -- including those impacted by Agent Orange -- by providing funding for rehabilitation, vocational training, and job placement.  And more recently, we’ve begun working together to address the still-present danger of mines and unexploded ordinance through the Landmine Impact Survey and the Vietnam Bomb and Mine Action Center, an inter-agency group established last year by Prime Minister Dung.  In the future, we expect to cooperate further on underwater de-mining operations. 

                All of these collaborative efforts provide invaluable opportunities to build knowledge and trust between our defense institutions. To this end, General Thanh and I agreed last year to establish a mechanism that would allow senior representatives from our two defense ministries to discuss the full range of bilateral, regional, and global security issues of common interest.  This last August, we held our first Defense Policy Dialogue in Hanoi -- the capstone achievement of our growing cooperation.  This dialogue brings together senior-level leaders to advance our defense relationship through regular and open discussions -- conversations that we look forward to continuing in Washington D.C. next year.  While we do not and will not always agree, it is critical that we remain willing to discuss these differences -- for example, on human rights issues -- candidly.

                As we move forward in building our partnership, we are increasingly looking to establish new areas of cooperation.  First, we are working to expand our collaboration on humanitarian assistance operations, and to support Vietnam’s own development of greater capabilities in this area.  For example, the United States Pacific Command has responded to a Vietnamese request for assistance and is working with the Government of Vietnam to construct medical clinics in Thua Thien Hue Province, build schools and centers for disabled children, and provide relevant training for Vietnamese doctors.

                In 2008, our countries undertook a historic step with the visit of the USNS Mercy, a hospital ship with a capacity of 1,000 beds, to Nha Trang .  This was not only the first time the United States and Vietnam’s Ministry of Defense Medical Corps had ever worked together, it was also the first U.S. military vessel to call into port in Nha Trang since 1975.  The Mercy returned for another successful visit this summer.  Doctors saw more than 300 patients and surgeons performed more than 130 procedures from elective cataracts to acute trauma.  Medical professionals from Mercy engaged with their Vietnamese counterparts on approaches to treatment, and technicians successfully repaired 35 pieces of medical equipment valued at $4 million.  

                Similarly, we hope to expand cooperation regarding disaster relief.  Vietnam, like much of Southeast Asia, has experienced the devastating consequences of natural disasters -- including the recent flooding in the central provinces.  And I would like to express my condolences to the victims of this tragedy, which has claimed more than 50 lives, and forced more than 20,000 to evacuate from their homes.  The U.S. government stands ready to assist the government of Vietnam in its comprehensive response efforts.  No one country can -- or should have to -- respond to catastrophic events alone, a principal Vietnam upheld through its assistance to the people of Burma during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. 

                An important component of disaster relief is search and rescue operations.  Over the past few years, 45 Vietnamese military officers have been certified as Combat Lifesaver Instructors through the U.S. Army here in Vietnam, and are now sharing their expertise with many more.  This year we look forward to hosting two Vietnamese officers at our Search and Rescue Operations and Planning School for the first time.

                The U.S. and Vietnam, as well as other nations in the region, also share a common interest in maritime security and freedom of access to the global commons.  Ship visits provide ideal venues to continue and expand this cooperation.  Two recent visits particularly demonstrate how far we’ve come.  First was the visit of the USS Lassen in November 2009 -- a vessel commanded by a Vietnamese American.  Then, earlier this year, in August, the USS John S. McCain visited DaNang.  We’re pleased that Vietnam has sent observers to several regional Cooperation and Readiness Afloat exercises, and look forward to future participation.

                The growing U.S.-Vietnamese partnership is not only important for the U.S. and Vietnam but for the region as a whole.  Today, Asia is home to some of the most dynamic, rapidly evolving democratic nations in the world -- especially here in Southeast Asia.  Southeast Asian nations sit astride key global trade routes, are home to a diverse ethnic and religious population, are playing a leading role in promoting Asian regional institutions, and, increasingly, are stepping forward as vital security partners on a range of regional and global challenges. This is why President Obama has made engagement with our Southeast Asian partners a priority of our policy in Asia. 

                Asia’s dynamism brings many opportunities and hope for the future, but it is also increasingly clear in the modern world that many core issues, from trade to natural disasters, territorial disputes, terrorism, and anti-piracy can best be addressed through strong multi-lateral cooperation.  Strong bilateral relationships -- amongst all Pacific nations -- are critical and they remain critical on their own. But they also build the mutual trust and familiarity necessary for multi-lateral institutions and initiatives to work -- the two are mutually reinforcing.  And, increasingly we find that relying exclusively on bilateral relationships is not enough -- we need multi-lateral institutions in order to confront the most important security challenges in this region. 

                I mentioned before the need to grow beyond our past.  This includes discarding Cold War ways of thinking about U.S. defense strategy and Asia’s overall security architecture -- a mindset that doesn’t reflect the past few decades’ tremendous changes. Vietnam has been a leader in promoting greater multilateral cooperation; its chairmanship of ASEAN this year is an excellent example.  In fact, Vietnam’s vision to push forward on such collaboration is one reason I’m here today.  The inaugural meeting of the ASEAN Defense Minister Meetings plus eight is tomorrow.  This meeting represents a historic and very welcome move to a higher level of regional security dialogue, with defense ministers formally coming together for the first time to build tangible cooperation on a range of security issues.  By allowing us to more regularly exchange views, and develop operational infrastructure for future efforts, this forum will build trust and transparency region-wide.  It is an important manifestation of the commitment of all our governments to a secure and peaceful future for Asia.

                I’ll close with some thoughts about the future of our bilateral relationship in particular.  Through the work we are doing today, we are building a foundation for the next generation of American and Vietnamese officers and defense leaders.  Next year, for the first time, Vietnam plans to send one officer to the U.S. National War College and one officer to the Naval Staff College.  The generation rising now has little to no personal memory of a time when our nations were not friends and I’m pleased to see so many young officers in the audience today.  I think my fellow grey-haired and light-haired statesmen in the audience may agree with me that today the world faces challenges far more complex and widespread than those we confronted.  Yet now we can confront these challenges together.  During President Clinton’s historic visit to Hanoi ten years ago, he eloquently stated the central goal of our partnership, and I quote:  “to give young people... in both our countries the chance to live in (their) tomorrows, not in our yesterdays.”  They inherit the mantle of responsibility for the relationship we continue to build -- I charge them to take good care of it. 

                Thank you.

                Q     Mr. Secretary of Defense, I have -- actually, we are from the Vietnam National University and military universities and colleges in Hanoi.  And we’d like to take this opportunity to ask you a few questions. 

                The first question: ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] highly valuable cooperation with the United States for security, stability and peace in Southeast Asia.  But how can we be sure that the United States won’t just walk away when their national interests are served in a certain way?  The second question --

                SEC. GATES:  Let me -- as I get older, I can only remember one question at a time.  (Laughter.) 

                First of all, the United States has been active in Asia for more than 150 years.  We have never turned our backs on Asia in that long time and with all that history.  We are a Pacific nation.  We have a presence in Asia.  We border the Pacific Ocean.  We have long-term interests here and we have friendships that go back many, many decades. 

                I think all Asia can be confident that the United States intends to remain engaged in Asia as we have been for so many scores of years before and that we intend to be an active participant not only in economic and political matters, but also in defense and security matters.

                Q     And the second question is the Vietnam-America defense relationship has been developed for the mutual benefits of the people of the two countries.  So what is your comment on this relationship and what are American priorities in the defense relationship with Vietnam?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I first came to Hanoi -- in fact, my only previous visit was about 15 years ago about the time we normalized -- established diplomatic relations.  And I’m amazed at the progress that has been made during that period and I would say especially over the last few years. 

                As I mentioned in my remarks, I’m the third U.S. defense secretary to visit Hanoi in the past decade.  And I think that there has been a further increase in the pace of this relationship just in the last few years.  President Obama clearly is intent on further expanding our relationships with nations here in Southeast Asia.  I would say that there are several areas of priority in our cooperation between our two militaries and our two defense establishments. 

                I think the first is simply establishing a good dialogue so we understand each other, what our interests are, and where we are headed with our own defense programs. 

                But we are very interested in pursuing work together on humanitarian operations and disaster relief, search and rescue, peacekeeping operations, maritime security and in particular how we advance maritime security.  We’re interested in greater sharing on military medicine that I alluded to in my remarks.  We are interested in exchanges on professional military education, as I just described. 

                So I think we have a rich menu of areas for cooperation and where we can enhance each other’s capabilities.

                Q     And the third question is: you are attending the ADMM-Plus [Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus].  And what is your comment on the role of the ADMM-Plus in regional cooperation and security?  And what are the areas within the framework of ADMM-Plus where the United States would like to cooperate with Vietnam and those countries?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I think that creating the ADMM-Plus forum was a very important initiative on the part of ASEAN and I give the Vietnamese government a great deal of credit in moving it from a good idea to a real event that will take place tomorrow and in identifying the eight additional countries that should participate.  I think the mere fact of having these defense ministers come together is in itself a significant achievement and creates the opportunity for a broadened dialogue on security issues in the region. 

                Here again I think some of the things that are important to us in our bilateral relationship I think have -- there are opportunities in a regional and multilateral relationship as well from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to maritime security, to peacefully resolving issues among nations, sharing information on issues like terrorism and piracy.  And so I think there are a number of areas in which our conversations will prove fertile and create opportunities for further multilateral cooperation. 

                I believe when your defense minister late last year invited me to participate in this meeting of the plus eight, I think that I may have been the first to accept.  When he extended the invitation, I told him on the spot I would come because I felt this was an important initiative and I wanted the United States to be seen as an enthusiastic participant in this.  And I’m looking forward to tomorrow. 

                Q     And the last question is, during your time as secretary of defense, what was your greatest success?  What was the greatest challenge?  And Mr. Secretary, you are planning to retire.  And however, the mass media -- the U.S. mass media said you should not retire.  So what is your comment on this?

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I retired once 17 years ago and it didn’t work.  And I find that particularly coming here to Asia, I occasionally meet with prime ministers whose fathers I dealt with and this is getting a little embarrassing.  I would say -- I suppose I can be amusing and say my greatest achievement in serving almost four years as secretary of defense is simply surviving. 

                But I think the greatest success has been in trying to improve the relationship with other countries in terms of improving relationships with our own Congress and our own military as well as in trying to bring the two wars that we are in to successful conclusions. 

                My biggest challenge is that which faces virtually every military in the world today and that is how do you protect your national interest and your long-term security interest in a time of economic difficulty and a time when defense budgets will increasingly come under pressure.  I think we can do that with a farsighted strategy.  And as far as retirement, we’ll just see what happens. 

                Thank you all very much. 

                (Applause.)