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A Conversation with Pham Binh Minh

Speaker: Pham Binh Minh, Foreign Minister, Socialist Republic of Vietnam
Presider: Bob Woodruff, CFR Fellow
September 27, 2011, New York
Council on Foreign Relations

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BOB WOODRUFF:  Good afternoon, everybody.  Thank you very much for the free lunch, since it's always good.  I'm Bob Woodruff.

As you know, who's going to be speaking today is Pham Binh Minh, the foreign minister of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.  And he will have a chance to give a statement up here, probably for about 10 minutes or so, followed by some questioning that we will do together up here and then followed by any questions that you can make as well.

I just have a couple notes before we start, is that the -- if you could, please, you know, turn off your cellphones.  Of course, use them in vibration, that's fine.  Also, remember:  This is going to be on the record.  You can see there's cameras back there.  So just be very careful about what you say. 

And I just want to introduce Foreign Minister Mr. Minh.

MINISTER PHAM BINH MINH:  Dr. Richard Haass, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank the Council on Foreign Relations for inviting me to this discussion.  And thank you all for coming.

We view the Council on Foreign Relations as an important partner and appreciate your interest in the development of Vietnam-U.S. relations.  We recall the visit by the council in 1993 when our two countries (were still ?) preparing for the normalizations of relations between Vietnam and the United States.  We had the normalizations in 1995. 

And last year, we were delighted to receive Dr. Richard Haass and the council delegation in Vietnam.  And I believe this visit has helped members of the council understand better our country and our people and -- (inaudible) -- in the areas of the -- (inaudible) -- reform.

And today I'm very honored to have this opportunity to share with you some of our thoughts on the foreign policies of Vietnam.  We have been pursuing a consistent foreign policy of independence, self-reliance, cooperation, development, multilateralization and diversification of relations, active and proactive international integration.  And we have a slogan that we are determined to be reliable, be a friend, a reliable partner and a responsible member of the international community.

The active and proactive international integration orientation is a new element in our foreign policy which was adopted at the 11th national -- the Party Congress early this year.  This was turning point in the -- in the -- in our foreign policy, because before we focus on early -- on economic integration, but now we also integration in all areas such as not only economic but trade politics, diplomacy, security, defense, (culture and social effects ?). 

Vietnam's successful nonpermanent membership at the United Nations Security Council during the term 2008 and 2009, our chairmanship of ASEAN in 2010, cooperation with countries and the United Nations in many fields such as nuclear security and safety, climate change; realizing the Millennium Development Goals, et cetera; active preparation to take part in peacekeeping operation and active participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations are some instances of our foreign policy.

We aim to further deepen our foreign relations, upgrade relations with leading partners, of which establishment of strategic partnership with major powers and important global economic centers is among our priorities.  We have established strategic partnership with Russia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and Spain.  I hope in the near future Vietnam will have strategic partnership with other major powers, including the United States.  At the same time we look -- we work to strengthen our relationship with traditional friends and partners as far as our participation in international organizations, especially the United Nations.

In terms of economic, at present the Vietnamese government identifies the priority task of stabilizing the macroeconomy, creating conditions for the economy to continue to develop fast and sustainably.  Together with many other comprehensive efforts, the effort to reduce and streamline public expenditure has helped to stabilize the macroeconomy, address challenges posed by the impacts of the global economic/financial crisis and create the necessary foundation for the realization of our 2011-2015 social/economic development plan and the 2011-2020 -- what we call the socio-economic strategy, which set the goal by 2020 Vietnam will become a modern-oriented industrial country.

To achieve this target, during this term our government is focusing on three main tasks:  one, simple market-economy institutions with emphasis given to creating a level playing field and administrative reform; two, human resources development, particularly high-quality human resource development; three, construction of integrated infrastructure system.  At the same time we view international economic cooperation as an important factor for Vietnam's economic development strategy, and this will be the priority for Vietnam's foreign relations in the coming years.

We are working with ASEAN countries to step into a new cooperation era pursuant the ASEAN charter, striving to build an ASEAN community by 2015 based on three main pillars -- politics, security, economic and social -- (inaudible) -- and to promote ASEAN centrality in an evolving regional architecture.  We hope to further promote partnership between ASEAN and major powers through increased dialogue, cooperation, confidence-building and preventive diplomacy with a view to developing lasting mechanism and structure to ensure peace, stability and sustainable development in the Asia-Pacific region.  We welcome the policy of increasing cooperations with the countries in the region by all countries, including the United States.

As for peace and security, it is always our top priority.  We look to the United Nations to continue its concerted and coherent efforts to promote peaceful settlement of civil wars and local conflicts in several regions of the world, especially those in North Africa and in Middle East, while preventing others from erupting.

It is a long-term necessity that we cultivate the culture of peace, dialogue and promote peaceful settlement of dispute.  Vietnam supports efforts to end violence and strengthen national reconstruction and reconciliation in Afghanistan, in Iraq. 

As regards the hot issue now at the General Assembly -- that is, the applications of Palestine to be a full member of United Nations -- we can say that we recognized the state of Palestine in 1988 and have always supported the just struggle of the Palestinian people for their inalienable rights, including the right to establish an independent and sovereign state that co-exists peacefully with Israel, which their border lies, set up before June 1967.  That's why we think we will support the applications of Palestine for full membership at United Nations, but (seems ?) at the present the discussion's in the arms of the Security Council but not yet brought to the table of the General Assembly.

It is Vietnam's consistent policy to support and promote general and complete disarmament, with top priority given to the three pillars of the nuclear issue -- namely, nuclear disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation and peaceful use of nuclear energy and technology.  We have been party to all major international instruments for the disarmament of weapons of mass destruction, including CTBT, NPT, BWC and CWC.  We also have been fulfilling our obligations under relevant United Nations mechanisms, especially those set up by the U.N. Security Council. 

We strongly support United Nations in translating the outcome of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference and the newly concluded High-level Meeting on Nuclear Safety and Security into concrete results, revitalizing the work of the conference on disarmament and taking forward multilateral disarmament negotiations.  And in our region, in our Southeast Asia, we, together with ASEAN fellow country, working to promote -- are working to promote the treaty on Southeast Asian -- Southeast Asian nuclear weapon-free zone, and we wish that the -- all states, especially nuclear-weapon states, to sign and ratify the protocol annexed to the treaty.

In implementation of our foreign policy, we view the U.S. as a leading partner of strategic significance.  When President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister of Vietnam Vo Van Kiet decided to normalize our relations 16 years ago, it is hard to imagine our relations would one day achieve this level of development.  Dialogue and consultation mechanisms have now been in place, thereby creating  a strong framework for the continued growth in bilateral relations in different areas, from political-diplomatic relations to economic, trade, security, national defense, cancer, education, science an technology, human assistance, et cetera.

Economic cooperation is currently seen as the highlight in our bilateral relations, with more than 18 billion (dollars) in trade turnover.  I remember in 1995 the trade turnover was about a few hundred million U.S. dollars and now it's 180 times of that amount in 1995.  More and more American companies, including leading corporations, are investing and expanding their market in Vietnam.  There exists enormous potential for our economic cooperation since both sides together with other partners are discussing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the largest and freest trade agreements in the Asia-Pacific region.

Other areas of cooperation have also achieved very impressive progress, particularly in people-to-people exchange.  The United States currently destination of choice for well over 13,000 students is why Vietnam is becoming one of the destinations of choice for American tourists. 

The two sides also have good cooperation in according -- in accounting for personnel missing in action, and in humanitarian activities such as HIV/AIDS, land mine clearance, solving the Agent Orange dioxin.

Additionally, security defense cooperation has meant positive progress.  The second dialogue on defense policy recently held in Washington, D.C., was the signing for the first time the memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation was the example of the cooperation between Vietnam and United States.

Building on the positive momentum of relations, Vietnam and United States are engaging in discussions about the upgrading of relations towards the strategic partnership.  In July 2010, on her visit to Vietnam on the occasion of celebrating the 15th anniversary for normalizations of relations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has brought with her President Obama's message (willing ?) to elevate our relations to a higher level toward a strategic partnership.  I believe that now more than ever is the right time for us to bring our relationship into the next phase of cooperation.

Yesterday I had a very productive meeting with Secretary Clinton on this subject.  It is her strong belief that this further enhancement of our relationship will help us realize a positive, (firmly ?) constructed, multi-sided cooperative -- mutual respect and mutually beneficial relationship of peace, stability and development as stated in a joint declaration by our leaders.  We are also of the view that better U.S.-Vietnam partnership not only means promoting similarity in mutual interests, but also taking into account each other's interests based on a spirit of understanding and respect for independence and sovereignty.

As for the bigger picture, I am confident that the Vietnam-U.S. partnership will continue to contribute positively to common efforts to promote peace, stability and development in the region (over the world ?).  Our two countries are presented with major opportunities to further enhance and deepen our bilateral and multilateral cooperation.  I hope that the Council on Foreign Relations and other stakeholders of Vietnam-United States relations be actively -- take part in this process for the long-term benefits of our two countries and our two people.  So I would like to end my remarks here, and thank you very much for your attention.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

WOODRUFF:  Well, thank you very much.  Very nice.  I know that I'm just going to ask some questions probably for the next 15 minutes or so and then open up any questions to you.  I'd like to say, though, for the first time -- and I'll sort of personally with us -- I think you and I are about the same age.  You're 52 years old; I'm 50 years old.  But during that time, when the Vietnam War existed, you and I were young teenagers.  Of course, I was in Detroit, and you were in Hanoi. 

What did -- what did you see and what did you think about the United States at that time?  We know that it's changed significantly since then.  But I just -- what did -- what did you witness, and what did you go through?

MINH:  Yes, as you mentioned, at that time during the war -- and we was very young.  I can say that I was a very small child at that time.  I remember during the bombing of Hanoi because I lived in Hanoi.  And during the bombing I had to evacuate to the countryside.  And from the countryside, every night I look at the sky, seeing, like, planes dropping bombs.  Of course, the hatred was -- (inaudible).  And then in 1975 I was old enough, went to school -- went to the School of Foreign Affairs.  And I studied diplomacy to become a diplomat, and with the dream that we can get, you know, to the normalizations of relations between Vietnam and the United States.  So this is the areas that now is -- in 1995 that dream came true. And you know, we have the stage of level relations these days.

WOODRUFF:  You know, I know you've been a very large advocacy for trying to increase the relationship between the United States and Vietnam.  Did you ever even imagine you would be here in the United States those years ago?

MINH:  At that time?

WOODRUFF:  Yeah, back in the 1970s?

MINH:  No.  (Laughter.)  At that time no because the -- before 1975 -- didn't know when the war would end.  So that's why I could not imagine that would be in the States.  (Chuckles.)

WOODRUFF:  Well, when did you first -- when was the first time you did think about that?

MINH:  That's when -- in the 1980s when I enter into the foreign affairs -- foreign ministry.  And at that time I work in the -- (inaudible) -- diplomacy, or what we call the International Organization Department.  And my job at that time directly linked to the work of the United Nations.  So I went to New York to attend the United Nations sessions.

WOODRUFF:  I know that again this is personal, but what was your father's -- I mean, what is his opinion of that, his thoughts about you following the kind of work that you did and coming eventually to this country where, you know, he was -- he was deeply involved in the war back then?

MINH:  Yes.  You know that we have a policy set up when we normalized our relationship with the United States; we have slogan that put the past aside and look to the future.  So every effort to normalize the relations between the two enemies -- that is a perfect one.

WOODRUFF:  And that's why the last -- that's my last question about the past.  (Chuckles.)  Let's move on to the -- to the present and the future.  You know, certainly when you look at -- the change in this country economically is huge.  And I lived from -- it's pretty amazing -- in all of Southeast Asia, I've never been to Vietnam.  That's about the only country I haven't been to.

MINH:  (Inaudible.)

WOODRUFF:  So that's mainly why I want to meet you, so I can go visit you there.  (Laughter.)  But I lived in China, in Beijing, in 1988 and 1989.  And then we saw a country that was just beginning to change significantly at that time, of course triggered and set back significantly by Tianenmen Square, which was the end of my stay there.  But if you look at the numbers of people emerging out of -- out of poverty in China, I think there's about 300 million have come out of poverty for the last 30 years.  For you, I think the poverty ratings -- I think it was about 75 percent considered in poverty level, and then down to 14 percent now, from 1990 until now.  How do you see the economy and the reason for this recovery over time?

MINH:  You know, for Vietnam for the past 10 years we have maintained the economic grow rate at about 7 (percent) to -- 7 percent to 8 percent, and that helped reduce the poverty rate a lot, and also the government has a priority policy for the poor people.  That's why, you know, for the MDG, this is one of the target we have achieved beyond -- before the date -- set for 2015.  That's the package for 2015, but we got that packet before that date.  So that is I think the reason (I thought ?) the economic growth in Vietnam.

WOODRUFF:  And you've got growth every year in the economy.  I think the number now is about 18 percent inflation.

MINH:  Eighteen percent inflation -- yes, for this year.  And that is one of the most -- one of the problematic issue for the economy of Vietnam.

WOODRUFF:  So what do you do about that?

MINH:  Now there's a couple of measures adopted by the government.  That is one of the -- one of the measure, is to control the public expenditure, reduce the projects.  The investment for the projects seems to be not very productive, so we reduce the -- those projects.  And also, to keep the interest rate down a little bit.  But still, the inflation still high.  For this month, it seems to be better than last month, but still very high.

WOODRUFF:  So moving on to regional tension, which of course is a -- certainly, significantly with China, which, of course, is the most powerful country right now all throughout Asia, what are your fears about that right now?  Obviously, (I've been ?), and it's said before that China looks at the China Sea as a large cow's tongue that kind of goes deeply below China and goes right along the border from the water of Vietnam.  How is that going to continue without some kind of battle, some kind of potential -- wouldn't call it a war, but how would you -- what do you think is going to happen to try to control what China is trying to impose on you?

MINH:  You know that with China at the present time we have -- what we describe the relationship is a comprehensive cooperation.  And also, China is our -- one of our -- we set up the strategic partnership with China.  China is among the seven countries we have the strategic partnership.  And the relationship between Vietnam and China is good in all fields.

Look at the economic side.  We had the trade turnover, about 20 billion U.S. dollar, because we are at an advantage.  We -- you know, we have deficit in trade with China.  And political side, we have exchange of visits at the high-level officials.  Culture, education and other aspects:  Good.

Only one remaining issue.  That is what you mentioned that -- the cow tongue.  The cow tongue is legally groundless.  There is no legal foundation for the cow tongue.  Both China and Vietnam are member -- are party to the united convention from the law of the sea, 1982.  And the United Nations Convention from (sic) the Law of the Sea recognized the exclusive economic zone of the country with the sea.  And Vietnam has the exclusive economic zone of the sea in 200 miles.  And the cow tongue reached to the continental shelf not only of Vietnam, but also of the Philippines and other countries in Southeast Asia.  That is why it's not in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea -- which China and Vietnam are both members of the convention.

WOODRUFF:  And so, of course, this is a, potentially, much larger naval war zone than has been anywhere else in the world, because of the sea.

In terms of the relationship with the -- with the U.S. military, certainly in some ways our naval power has now peaked.  I think the budget restrictions in our country are to some degree weakening our potential military, you know, work and operations in the part near Vietnam, and certainly the Middle East, where we're diverting a lot of that now to that part of the world.  If the United States, in terms of the military power and assistance to you in that world -- how do you think that will affect you and how much badly and deeply do you now (need ?) the United States to set up our -- step up our power, in Southeast Asia especially?

MINH:  You know that in South China Sea, what we call Eastern Sea, there are three dimensions of the issue.  The territorial dispute must be solved through peaceful solution by the country concerned.  The second dimensions of the South China Sea is the stability, security, stability in the region.  Anything happens in South China Sea will affect peace and stability of the countries in the region -- of the region, of course indirectly but to other countries. 

And the first dimension is the navigation, freedom of navigation.  So, anything happens in South China Sea will affect the freedom of navigation, so, of course, affect other countries, not only United States -- Japan, other -- India, as well.  So we see that -- the efforts by countries inside and outside to make that stable.  We appreciate that effort.

WOODRUFF:  I know you've relied on it for a long time.  Now there's been -- well, our budget certainly is, you know, difficult for us right now, but your budget is -- as much of Southeast Asia -- the budget for military defense is now on the rise, and huge percentage of importing weapons is on the rise.  Where do you see Vietnam going in terms of what kinds of weapons you're going to be buying different than before, what countries you would be importing it from, other than Russia, and how that's going to change over time?

MINH:  No, in comparisons with the budgets for military expenditure, the budget of Vietnam is very small.

WOODRUFF:  Small but (growing ?).

MINH:  Very small.  You compare with, you know, percentage of GDP, that we have enough weapons to defend our country.  That is the target (solely ?).  And surely now at the present time we buy weapons from Russia.  This is true.  And still we have -- we need only enough weapons to defend our country.  This is our target.

WOODRUFF:  You know, once I did an hour on China's expansion, and we looked everywhere from Brazil to Angola -- Angola, where they're, you know, getting oil, and Brazil, they need more, you know, food and soybeans, which numbers have gone up gigantically for them.  And in terms of countries around, you know, in the southeastern -- in Asia, it's largely influence that they're trying to increase, and largely because of that, of course, is, like you said, navigation -- it's largely to get oil and gas and things, you know, through those areas back into their country.

Do you think if you were to pick a reason why there'll be a huge -- a large conflict, would it be because of that, because China has difficulty getting its energy and food into its country?

MINH:  There are different analyses on that.  You know, the conflicts -- the cause of conflicts may come from different reasons.  So on a specific case --

WOODRUFF:  What about importing oil, for example, through the sea in (Malacca ?).

MINH:  In what?

WOODRUFF:  To go through -- over the sea towards China, largely from the Middle East.

MINH:  I don't have the figure for the oil reserves in South China Sea.  So I don't know how the resources of oil in South China Sea could affect -- could lead to the conflict, not like in the Middle East.  Middle East is absolutely sure that the course of conflict in that may come from oil.

WOODRUFF:  I know we're going to open this up for questions in a minute, but what about human rights in Vietnam?  How do you see that changing since it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and certainly particularly about religious rights?

MINH:  You mentioned that you haven't been to Vietnam, right?

WOODRUFF:  Not yet.  And I'm still waiting for your -- (laughter) -- I'm waiting for your invitation.

MINH:  Yes.  And I know that some of you in this room have been to Vietnam and you have seen a lot of changes in Vietnam, especially since 1975 until now.  And one thing may not be changed:  that is our commitment to the protection of human rights in Vietnam.  If you look at the policies of Vietnam, we -- our policies always focusing on the betterment of the living standard of the people, and also along with that is the rights of the people.  So that is our commitment to that.

Of course, there is a different approach to the human rights.  That's why every year we have conducted many dialogues with different countries, including the United States, on the issue of human rights.

WOODRUFF:  Well, how does -- how about diplomacy overseas?  You know, with the United States, we -- obviously there's a lot of --

MINH:  (Inaudible.)

WOODRUFF:  -- (inaudible) -- human rights and -- overseas.  China, you know, stays away from that as much as they can.  Where do you see Vietnam going on that?

MINH:  As I mentioned, that is a different kind of approach to human rights agenda.  Nowadays, many Vietnamese, what you would call the "overseas Vietnamese," return to Vietnam for visiting their friends, their families and for doing business.  And of course, one part of the community still not yet return to Vietnam, because they know that we had a war in Vietnam.  And there still exists the -- you know, the misunderstanding of this, even the hatred.  So that can give the reasons why some of them have not come home yet.  But we are -- we welcome all of them to come back -- (inaudible).  We are open.

WOODRUFF:  And then the last.  Given what we're talking about, certainly about the growth of the economy especially and what you're doing to raise that, do you still consider Vietnam to be a communist country, a capitalist country, a balance between the two, significantly different than it was before?

MINH:  (Inaudible.)  (Laughter.)  We have -- we have the party, the Communist Party.  As I mentioned in my paper, we have just held the 11th National Party Congress.  And we adopted the -- what you call the market economy, because it's suitable for the development of Vietnam.  But we're still continuing to be a communist country.  As the name of Vietnam -- (inaudible) -- Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

WOODRUFF:  So certainly in name.

MINH:  Well, we're still also -- (inaudible).

WOODRUFF:  Thank you very much.  If -- obviously open up for questions.

QUESTIONER:  Following up on that.  (Off mic.)  Larry Pressler (sp).  Following up on that, Vietnam seems to be caught in between being a state-run economy and free enterprise.  And for example, in free trade agreements and investment -- by way of disclosure, I serve on a board at the Vietnam Fund, and we find it much more difficult to make investments or to deal with the stock market or transparency.  And I'm certainly not criticizing, but are you going to be a state-run economy or are you going to invite more foreign investment?

MINH:  Thank you.  Thank you for that question.  And you know that now in Vietnam we have the stock exchange market, and also we have the private companies, and of course we also have the state-run companies.  And also -- and now the government has the policy to what you call the equitization of the state-run companies.  So you look at that, we have -- still have the state-run companies, the private -- 100-percent owned by foreign -- foreign-owned companies, joint ventures.  So you can see the mixture of the investment in Vietnam. 

And of course, we welcome all kind of investment in Vietnam.  And we treat investment from outside as well as domestic investments at the same treatment.  We have the same treatment, the same favorable conditions for all foreign investor, also domestic investors.  We had the law on that.

QUESTIONER:  Ken Roth from Human Rights Watch.  I wanted to follow up on the human rights question because I heard you answer by referring to economic development, which is, of course, you know, one important part, you know.  But I didn't hear anything about the other parts.  I'm wondering why, given Vietnam's self confidence today -- (off mic) -- is it still not allowing, say, people to -- (off mic) -- the government -- (off mic)?  I mean, why is it still suppressing bloggers who might write about production -- (off mic)?  There are a range of the other kinds of rights that we haven't gotten yet.  And given its self-confidence in the world, I'm just wondering -- (off mic).

MINH:  You know that Vietnam is a party to nearly all conventions on human rights.  And like the United States, we also are members of the -- what do you call -- the Universal Declarations of Human Rights.

QUESTIONER:  (Off mic.)

MINH:  And we respect the particularities and universality of human rights.  Both economic, political rights -- those are in the constitution of Vietnam.  As you mentioned, some individuals -- yes, like any countries -- if anyone violates the constitution, the law, they must be put in jail; they must be dealt with, you know, legally.

I remember a few years ago recently we have -- we had dialogues with United Kingdom, for example.  And they mentioned that why you control the -- some kind of demonstration.  But look at U.K., all right?  A few weeks or few months ago they adopt the -- I don't know the rule or something -- control demonstration after the burning down in London, or something like that.  So look, if you had some security concern, you had to adopt some kind of measure.  So that is normal.  But we respect the human rights in all fields because we are members of the -- all conventions on human rights.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you, Minister.  Dinah PoKempner, also of Human Rights Watch.  Following on that question, while Vietnam does have a very good record of signing human rights treaties, it has a less admirable record when it comes to transparency in admitting U.N. human rights mechanisms or international groups to visit.  Recently there's been a controversy, for example, on the possible export of some products produced by forced labor -- "blood cashews."  And I'm wondering, since Vietnam is taking a very -- more forward and prominent role in international affairs and diplomacy, whether it would also be starting to become more transparent and welcoming of human rights mechanisms.  Thank you.

MINH:  Sorry, I cannot -- (inaudible) -- your question on the -- what labor?

MR.    :  (Off mic.)

MINH:  We welcome the visits to those areas because I don't know that information.  There is no -- it's not the right information on that.  So we welcome the visit.

MR.    :  (Off mic.)

WOODRUFF:  (Chuckles.)  That's right.  That's a different kind of tourism, though, so I'm not going to -- (laughter) --

QUESTIONER:  Hi, I'm Brett Dakin, a term member here at the council.  I wanted to draw attention for a second to the importance of the Mekong River and the region; and in particular, some rather unusual disputes recently between Vietnam and the Lao PDR about the use of the Mekong River for hydroelectric power.  So if you could comment on Vietnam's approach to that issue, and in particular on the project that the Lao PDR would like to pursue with respect to harnessing the power of the Mekong to produce electricity.  Thanks.

MINH:  Thank you.  I would not describe it a dispute between Vietnam and Lao (sic) on that.  You know, along the Mekong River there are six countries.  We had the commission, the Mekong Commission, which comprised four countries.  Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are members of the commission.  And in the commission, we have agreement that if any country develop hydro -- hydrotic (sic) power, in the mainstream of the Mekong River, must inform other members of the commission of the project, of the utilization and also the details of the project.

Of course, upstream, there are two other countries.  They have developed many projects along the mainstream, but they haven't inform us.  But they already install the projects upstream.

For Laos, Lao (sic) has an intention to develop the projects along the Mekong River.  When we know -- when Lao (sic) inform the Mekong Commission about the project, the members of the Mekong Commission, Vietnam and other countries, asked Lao (sic) to give details of the project.  And also, we asked for study, a scientific study, to make sure that the project, if affect the -- what do you call the change that the mainstream on the -- that the water flow -- the water flow, which affect the lower Mekong country like Vietnam and Cambodia -- because it will affect the production of rice area in Vietnam.

And now the process is that we ask Lao (sic) to give us the detail in a scientific manner, the project.  And Lao (sic) already hire a company, a Swiss company, a Swiss -- what do you call the --

MR.     :  (Consulting company ?).

MINH:  Consulting company, to make study on the utilization -- on the dam in Xayaburi.  And they will inform us with the help of the study.

QUESTIONER:  Yes, Elizabeth Bramwell, Bramwell Capital.  Your 7 (percent) to 8 percent growth rate is very impressive.  And I was wondering if that's sustainable, given the fact that Europe and the U.S. are slowing down to something like 2 percent, maybe less; and where Vietnam is in terms of moving from more of an export market, export-driven economy, to one that is more domestically driven, or maybe ASEAN driven.

MINH:  Thank you for that question.  That is also the -- (inaudible) -- now for us, as I mentioned, that we have maintained the economic grow rate for -- you know, for 10 years at the rate of 7 (percent) to 8 percent.  And right now, the grow rate registers at 5.5 percent.  And that -- our economy is very much -- we very much depends on export, that's sure.  And that's why we depends on the market outside.  If the demand going down, like in the United States if you don't spend your money on consumption, so that's hard for us.  And now the government is considering the restructuring of the economy, how to restructure it.  That is a problem.  We still continue to restructure the economy.

QUESTIONER:  (Name inaudible.)  I work at the United Nations Foundation, and I'm a term member of the council.  Thank you for being here.

I think some people were very encouraged to see Vietnam playing a greater role in the world, particularly with your membership on the Security Council.  And I think many people see that as bringing along with it a greater responsibility as well in the world.  And I know that some were also disappointed at the same time to see that there were crackdowns -- just following up on Ken Roth's question -- crackdowns on practice of religion there.  And some would say there's a difference between practicing religion and demonstrations and crowd control.

Is there any possibility of adjusting the laws so that people can practice their religion freely there, and in line with Vietnam's sort of greater responsibility in the world?  (In Vietnamese.)

MINH:  (Please ?) come to visit Vietnam and see the church on Sunday.  Even I myself cannot get into the church on Sunday or even in the Christmas Eve.  It's very crowded.  So I don't see any, you know, kind of discriminations against the practice of religious practice in Vietnam.  So please come to visit us.

QUESTIONER:  Jeff Laurenti with the Century Foundation.  This is somewhat of a mirror to Ken Roth's question, and it deals with the economic rights.  Chinese business is concerned about Vietnam being an even lower-wage economy and draining business and investment to Vietnam.  The producers of apparel and such look to Vietnam and idealize it as a place that you aren't bothered with unions and have low wages and a docile workforce.

What are the protections that Vietnam actually enforces for the rights of workers to be able to organize in unions, or are they entirely under pretty firm government control?  What kind of static do you have from the International Labor Organization on compliance with the international conventions on labor rights?  And how does the Communist Party see its vocation as the movement of workers and peasants and yet trying to find a way to bring in as much foreign investment as possible by restricting labor rights in order to encourage the maximum amount of investment to get to economic takeoff?

MINH:  Yes, thank you.  And yes, in Vietnam, we have union(s).  And you could call it the state union or union.  That is a union.  And the workers are members of the unions.  And I think that also in the foreign (investment factory ?), there's still union in that.  So I don't understand what is this restriction on these low rates.  We encourage, you know, the labor can receive high salary, high income.  So I don't see any restrictions on the labor costs in Vietnam.  So I'm not sure that it is the question that you have raised about the restrictions of labor rate of -- (inaudible).

QUESTIONER:  And the protections of the -- of the guarantees in the ILO convention, freedom of association, in order to assure the maximum chance for workers to get a larger share of the fruits of their work.

MINH:  Surely -- (inaudible) -- discussions in the National Assembly on the -- (inaudible) -- labor court in Vietnam.  There's -- I believe that there is a kind of discussions on the new labor court in Vietnam.  So maybe take into consideration that -- (inaudible).

QUESTIONER:  Yes, George Weiksner, Credit Suisse.  I want to congratulate you on normalizing relations with the U.S.  We're sometimes a difficult political entity to deal with.  I'd be interested in what advice you might give Cuba, who's trying to normalize relationship, in emulating your success.

MR.     :  (Off mic.)  (Laughter.) 

MINH:  It's a tough question, because each country has its own characteristics and different background of history.  So -- maybe our advice is patience.  (Laughter.)  We had 20 years after 1975 until 1995, 20 years of discussions for the normalization.  And that is long enough for patience; and also, you know, both sides has interest in normalizing the relationship.

WOODRUFF:  Do you want to -- (inaudible)?

QUESTIONER:  No.

WOODRUFF:  Huh?

QUESTIONER:  (Off mic.)

WOODRUFF:  OK.  All right.  Since you run the place, you can go back.  (Laughter.)

QUESTIONER:  I rarely ask a question.  I'm going to break my rule.  I'm Richard Haass.  I work here.  (Laughter.)

You said something very interesting in your remarks.  You said in your meeting with the secretary of state, you were discussing the possibility of a strategic partnership between the United States and your country.  So I would be curious what would be the content of that partnership.  What would you like to see in our relationship in the future that you don't see now?  And to what extent would it be oriented towards the rise of China or something in addition to that?

MINH:  Me also, very curious on the content -- (laughter) -- of the strategic partnership, because we are now still discussing what would be the coverage of the strategic partnership.  Yes, of course, we focus on all aspects, because to be a strategic partnership, we believe that it would cover all political relations, economic ties, education, defense, security, technology, that all areas would be covered in the strategic partnership, like the strategic partnership we have established with other countries.  And of course we have -- at present time we have six or seven strategic partnerships, and none of these will be against any country.  So it's absolutely (that ?) -- strategic partnership, we promote the relations between the two countries and also contribute to the peace and stability in the region.  This I believe.

QUESTIONER:  My name is Jim Harmon.  Eleven, 12 years ago, I was chairman of the Ex-Im Bank, and we reopened in Vietnam.  At the time, we thought a lot about further normalization of relationships between the United States and Vietnam, and we expected then that state-owned enterprises as a percentage of that which consumes capital or produces would be reduced significantly in Vietnam.

Today I run a fund which invests in the developing and frontier world, including Vietnam, and we're a little bit discouraged by the fact that state-owned enterprises still consume 50 percent of the capital in the country but produce 25 percent, or represent 25 percent of the production.  So as you think about restructuring the economy -- and I know that you can do this -- you would focus in on further privatization and maybe even the limitations that you place on foreign investors not exceeding more than 50 percent of the number of publicly owned companies.

So there are things that you could do which would significantly encourage investment in Vietnam from not only the United States but all over the world.  And also, I think it would help relative to the inflation problem, of course, that you have.

MINH:  Yes, as I mentioned, that now the government is trying to restructure the economy, (in that ?), of course, the state-owned enterprises.  We have the plan for reduce the state-owned enterprises, especially those ineffective enterprises.  With the state-owned enterprises which stay -- which are -- which stay effective, we continue to keep it and maintain it because they can -- they make contributions to the growth of the economy of Vietnam.  And as I mentioned, that we welcome all kind of investment in Vietnam.  There is no distinction between the state-owned enterprises or the foreign-owned companies.  There is the same playing level for all enterprises in Vietnam, for all kind of foreign investment.  I don't know whether I -- my answer will be appropriate to your question or not.

WOODRUFF:  Well, thank you very much.  It's been a great education from our professor.  (Laughter.)  I appreciate it.

MINH:  Thank you.

WOODRUFF:  Take me over to your country very soon with my little children, who want to go.  (Laughter.)  We'll figure a(n) exact semester to go to -- we'll figure that out later.  But again, thank you very much for all the -- (applause) --

MR.    :  Thank you.

MINH:  Thank you, Bob.

Thank you very much.

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