A Strategic Opportunity to Advance U.S.-Vietnam Relations

This week, the United States and Vietnam will open a new chapter in our history as General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong travels to Washington, the first visit by Vietnam's Communist Party General Secretary to the U.S. since our two nations established relations 20 years ago.

In those two decades, Vietnam lifted millions of people out of poverty through market-oriented reforms and made concrete progress towards a more open society. It has integrated itself into the international community and is becoming a positive and constructive global player, while its citizens have benefited from much greater space to make their own decisions about how they want to work and live. Our countries have cooperated on a range of priorities from maritime security and disaster relief to wildlife conservation and education.

This year, we are hard at work on one of our most ambitious and important efforts yet: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal that, if achieved, will establish high standards on labor, intellectual property, and the environment. It will unlock vast new markets, promote investment, encourage innovation, and support higher-paying jobs. It will level the playing field between state-owned enterprises and private companies. And it will have strong, enforceable provisions that uphold the rights of workers, prohibit forced labor, and protect our forests and oceans.

But this trade agreement is about more than economic dividends. It is a strategic opportunity for the entire region -- an unprecedented chance to advance the values and practices that will unleash the potential of our nations and improve the lives of our people. With this agreement in place, Vietnam would have to adopt and maintain laws that prohibit forced and child labor, allow workers to form unions, and improve transparency in government. As Vietnam opens its markets and strengthens fundamental rights, the relationship between our nations will continue to grow -- to the benefit of both our citizens.

When I traveled to Vietnam in May, I caught a glimpse of this future. In Ho Chi Minh City, I met with a group of students who were creating videos about innovative solutions for environmental problems in their communities. The films were high-quality productions and extraordinarily effective. I asked the students how they got interested in film and was surprised to learn that they had no formal training in the arts. They had all learned about video production at the American Center.

Their energy and curiosity is widely reflected in their peers. Today, the United States enjoys a 78% favorability rating in Vietnam -- a number that goes up to 88% among those under the age of 30. In 1995 there were 794 Vietnamese students enrolled at American universities. Last year there were nearly 17,000 -- more than come from the U.K., Germany, France, or Brazil. Today, 22 million Vietnamese are on Facebook and 35 million are connected to the internet, where they speak their minds and argue their opinions freely.

In the 21st century, this is how we define the true wealth of a nation. Not just by its natural resources, economic strength, or military might. But by a nation's ability to maximize the potential of its people -- to unleash their creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit and make room for them to argue, criticize, and challenge conventional wisdom.

As Vietnam increasingly opens its doors, it will reap the rewards of progress for its people. This transformation will not happen overnight. Vietnam is still a one-party state where people can still be arrested, detained, or imprisoned for expressing their ideas. But the Trans-Pacific Partnership offers a powerful and pragmatic incentive for accelerating reform and fostering a free and open society that will be more deeply connected to the United States.

Twenty years after the leadership of President Clinton, Senator McCain, and then-Senator Kerry led to this historic opening between our two countries, we have only just begun to tap into the potential of our relationship. As we welcome General Secretary Trong this week, we send a powerful message to the world: that formerly bitter adversaries can become friends and, having made peace, we are now building a partnership that will advance the stability and prosperity of our citizens and the world beyond.