Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyễn Quốc Cường: The US–Vietnam relationship, from post-war reconciliation to comprehensive partnership

Guest Commentary

Having grown up during what Americans call the “Vietnam War” and the Vietnamese call the “U.S. War,” I still remember being awakened by air defense sirens almost every night.

Although my parents worked in Hanoi, my four siblings and I were sent to live in different places in the countryside to reduce the risk of all of us being bombed at the same time.


If I had known that we would all survive, I would have considered that miraculous. I would never have dared to dream of the historic changes that made it possible for me to become a Vietnamese ambassador to the United States — once our foe, now our friend.

In 1995, our two nations achieved formal reconciliation, thanks to tireless efforts from both sides. On the U.S. side, the leadership came from then-President Clinton and two senators who had served in the war, John KerryJohn Forbes KerryBiden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Biden's climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics Biden soars as leader of the free world MORE (D-Mass.) and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden eyeing Cindy McCain for UK ambassador position: report The Memo: GOP mulls its future after Trump Juan Williams: Obama's dire warnings about right-wing media MORE (R-Ariz.).

Before his recent visit to Vietnam, Kerry, now secretary of State, said that he used to dream of the day when someone “could say the word Vietnam and people would think about a country, not a war.” But now, he says, “No one can help but marvel at the modern Vietnam.”

As my new American friends would say, the ever-widening partnership between our countries is “a two-way street” and a “win-win.” The United States is doing its part. Vietnam is doing our part. And both of our countries, as well as our friends in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), have benefited.

Since Presidents Obama and Trương Tấn Sang signed the Comprehensive Partnership in July, our countries have initialed an agreement on peaceful nuclear cooperation. Negotiations for an expanded trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), have advanced. And Vietnam Airlines has procured 40 aircraft engines from GE for $1.7 billion.

This progress will accelerate as long as our countries continue to recognize our common interests in economic, environmental and security issues while understanding each other’s concerns on human rights.


On the economic front, our two-way trade totaled $25 billion in 2012. That was a 50-fold increase from 1995, when diplomatic relations were normalized, and a threefold increase since 2006, when normal trade relations were restored.

With Vietnam already America’s 29th largest goods trading partner, U.S. companies are gaining new markets while helping Vietnam’s economy to grow. GE recently reached an agreement with the Cong Ly Co. to provide $94 million in additional wind turbines for a wind-farm project in the Bạc Liêu province. This project supports American and Vietnamese jobs, expands American exports and helps Vietnam to produce the electricity we need for economic growth.

On the environmental front, this project sets an example of sustainable development in the Mekong Delta — a common concern that Kerry discussed during his visit.

On security issues, the U.S. and Vietnam have reached an agreement to promote nuclear nonproliferation. The U.S. has offered to sell Vietnam nuclear fuel and technology for our reactors for peaceful use, and we have made clear Vietnam has no intention of producing nuclear fuel on our own.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Vietnam are working together to promote maritime safety and security in the Eastern Sea, also known as the South China Sea, through which $5.3 trillion of trade — $1.2 trillion involving the U.S. — passes every year.

While our relationship benefits from being a two-way street, we must not let it detour over difficult challenges such as human rights.

Having suffered from colonialism as well as several decades of war, Vietnam understands the values of human rights. That is why Vietnam endorses and embraces the international norms enshrined in the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; why we recently signed the Convention against Torture; and why we are combating human trafficking and recognizing same-sex marriage.

After receiving more than 20 million citizens’ comments, Vietnam just ratified an amended constitution with stronger safeguards for human rights. Today, our nation has more than 1,700 houses of worship for Buddhists, Catholics, Protestants and adherents of our faiths. Moreover, Vietnam now has 812 print newspapers, 67 combined TV and radio stations, 101 TV channels, 78 radio channels and access to international channels, including CNN, BBC and Bloomberg.

With our political, historical and cultural differences, it is understandable that the U.S. and Vietnam have differences on human rights. But our productive partnership requires mutual confidence-building and exchanges of ideas, such as the annual U.S.-Vietnam Human Rights Dialogue. 

Our ever-evolving relationship, from conflict to conciliation to partnership, is not a destination — it is a journey.

In the spirit of Kerry’s visit, let us move our friendship and partnership forward.

Cường is Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States