Ambassador Nina Hachigian’s Remarks at Ho Chi Minh Academy

Hanoi, Vietnam

Good afternoon.

It is great to be here today with all of you at the Ho Chi Minh Academy to talk about U.S. foreign policy in ASEAN.

America has long been engaged in the Asia-Pacific region, but early in his first term, President Obama saw the need to remind us of this and refocus America’s national attention on “rebalancing” our relationship with Asia.

ASEAN is a cornerstone of that Rebalance.

As President Obama has said, “A strong relationship between the United States and ASEAN is essential to realizing our shared vision for the future.”

Just to give you an idea of how strongly he believes in this relationship, he is the first American President who has regularly met with all ten ASEAN leaders, and over the past five years, he has raised United States development assistance in Southeast Asia to more than four billion dollars.

I want to throw out just a few examples of what U.S. assistance buys.

Here in Vietnam, the United States is the largest bilateral donor in the health sector and is the leading funder of HIV-related services.

We have trained more than 13,000 Vietnamese governmental officials in trade issues since 2010.

We are supporting the ASEAN Wildlife Network, working to combat wildlife trafficking, especially rhino horn, an effort that Vietnam has taken a leading role in, I am grateful to say.

American taxpayers have also paid for programs in the region that prevent infant death, preserve cultural heritage sites, provide access to clean drinking water, train judges, improve education, and feed children.

Why are we spending our U.S. dollars on efforts like this?  The fact is that we are engaged in Southeast Asia because we need to be.

That is why you can count on us staying.

A prosperous, strong, integrated and unified ASEAN is good for the people of Southeast Asia. But it is also good for the United States, and, moreover, good for the world.

Why is that?

First, the United States has deep economic interests in Southeast Asia.

Our companies have been here, investing billions in facilities, infrastructure and in people, for many decades. As a result, the total value of U.S. direct investment in Southeast Asia is greater than any other country’s; In fact, American private sector investment, over $200 billion, is more than China’s, Korea’s, and Japan’s combined. U.S. business invests considerably more in ASEAN than it does in China.

For example, three months ago, Proctor & Gamble broke ground for a 100 million dollar factory in Binh Duong to produce Gillette razors. General Electric recently signed a 94 million dollar contract to provide 52 wind turbines for the first-ever wind farm in the Mekong Delta. This means jobs for people of Vietnam. Jobs, technology transfer, and training.

Secondly, we are here because of significant security interests.

A more prosperous, more integrated Southeast Asia means a more secure and stable Asia-Pacific region.  ASEAN has underwritten peace and stability in this neighborhood for a generation.

That is why the countries here were able to lift millions out of poverty—because of that basic foundation of peace. In a region loaded with major powers, we want ASEAN to continue to play its critical role in promoting peace and security.   There are non-traditional threats as well.

President Obama has often said that no country can achieve security alone, because many modern threats do not respect national borders.

Officials here in Southeast Asia are working together to combat these transnational threats, whether it be climate change, foreign terrorist fighters, illegal trafficking, or pandemic disease. ASEAN, because it is multilateral, is the partner we need to address trans-border threats.

The way that ASEAN member states act on these issues, individually and collectively, affects the U.S. and the whole world. Understanding the importance of ASEAN, President Obama decided to establish a permanent, separate U.S. Mission to ASEAN.

We were the first non-ASEAN country to do this. We at the U.S. Mission to ASEAN have five major priorities:

  • Supporting ASEAN economic integration
  • Expanding maritime cooperation
  • Cultivating emerging leaders, including through our YSEALI program
  • Promoting opportunity for women
  • and fostering green growth

Let me talk about each of these quickly.

This is 2015, the year that the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, will be born.

More integration will mean more opportunities and more economic growth. Integration will give more ASEAN citizens a stake in their neighbors’ success, which can strengthen political bonds. That, in turn, could allow ASEAN to play an even stronger role in keeping peace in the region. Thus America has a strategic stake in integration, not just an economic one.

A lot has been done already on the AEC.  Nobody in 1992 would have believed that ASEAN would be a nearly tariff-free zone, ever.  And yet here we are. Much of the trade in this region moves via the oceans.  ASEAN sits astride some of the world’s most important trade routes with $5.3 trillion in trade passing through regional waterways each year.

That brings me to another priority, deepening maritime cooperation.

As a major maritime and Pacific power, America has national interests in freedom of navigation and overflight, the free flow of lawful commerce and the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law. As a matter of long-standing policy, the United States does not take a position on the sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and we are not, ourselves, a claimant. Nor does the U.S. comment on the specific merits of the Philippines-China arbitration case.

At the same time, the United States does have a national interest in how claimants deal with their disputes and whether claims around the world comport with the international law of the sea. For us, this is about rules.

What China is doing in the SCS with land reclamation and construction on features is eroding trust and confidence, as the ASEAN leaders said at their last summit. The U.S. calls on all parties to bring their claims into conformity with international law, and we reaffirm our support for nations to exercise peaceful means, including international arbitration, to resolve maritime disputes.

The best way to reduce tensions is for all claimants to agree to halt further land reclamation, new construction, and further militarization of outposts.

There are other marine issues that are important to the United States, including biodiversity and fish stocks. Southeast Asia is home to more marine biodiversity than anywhere else in the world.  Life-saving drugs could be found in a species of algae or seaweed that has yet to be discovered.  And fish provide a considerable amount of protein in many Southeast Asian diets.

For these reasons, this year the U.S. will commit to spend tens of millions of dollars on regional and bilateral programs designed to conserve marine biodiversity and help combat illegal fishing.

This is a real priority for the Secretary of State and the White House also.

So there you have it.

We continue to be strong believers  in what ASEAN can do, and we are giving this community of nations our whole-hearted support. In this, the 20th year anniversary of Vietnam-America relations, we stand ready to deepen our partnership with you and with ASEAN.

Thank you again for your warm welcome today.

With that, let me end my remarks.

I am eager to hear your ideas, thoughts and questions about ASEAN and the United States.