WASHINGTON -- Two important partnership initiatives between the United States and Vietnam will continue as both countries look for ways to help Vietnam combat COVID-19 and as both countries step up the Vietnam War-era personnel accounting program, said Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III during meetings with Vietnamese officials today.
Austin is making the first trip to Southeast Asia by a senior Biden administration official. He met with newly elected Vietnamese President Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh and National Defense Minister Phan Van Giang.
At the meetings, the secretary spoke of the challenging times COVID-19 has created. The U.S. has reached out to the nations of Southeast Asia to help them in their fight against the disease. Austin noted that the U.S. has provided vaccines, laboratory and testing equipment and cold storage freezers.
"We are also proud to have donated 5 million doses of Moderna vaccines to Vietnam," he said during his talks at the prime minister's office. "I look forward to discussing additional ways that the United States can support Vietnam’s response."
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Turning to the Vietnam War-era personnel accounting program, a portion of the meeting at the Ministry of National Defense concerned the Vietnam Wartime Accounting Initiative Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries. It enables the Vietnamese people to search millions of records, "to help search for their own missing, and to recover war dead," a senior Defense official said. At the heart of that memo is the collaboration with Harvard and Texas Tech creating a searchable database containing millions of records.
The importance of this project was clearly evident in the fact that progress was only slowed, not stopped, by the pandemic. U.S. and Vietnamese teams continued to search for those missing even as COVID-19 caused shutdowns.
"The United States and Vietnam have such a complex shared history of sacrifice," Austin said at the National Defense Ministry. "When our two countries resumed normalization, the United States committed itself to respecting Vietnam’s political system and your independent and balanced foreign policy."
The United States has a productive and warm relationship with Vietnam, but the U.S. "does not ask Vietnam to choose between partners," Austin said. "In fact, one of our central goals is ensuring that our allies and partners have the freedom and space to chart their own futures."
Normalization of relations between the two nations occurred in 1995. Austin said the growth in cooperation since then "has been striking and inspiring. We have built a foundation of trust and understanding tied to our decades-long cooperation on war legacy issues."
The U.S. will continue its dioxin clean-up efforts in Vietnam and will work to remove unexploded munitions left over from the Vietnam War. The U.S. will also continue to support disabled veterans of war.
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The United States and Vietnam have grown closer because of their shared interests and belief that peace and prosperity in the region depends on a "free and open Indo-Pacific," Austin said. "We believe the region needs strong and independent Vietnam – a country that can defend its sovereignty and expand the prosperity of its people."
The secretary wanted to get to the region earlier in his time in office, but COVID-19 restrictions prevented that. “For the secretary, this was a very important trip to make,” Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby told reporters travelling with Austin. “This is his first chance to engage in person in Southeast Asia. And as you know, this is a vital region.”
It is a manufacturing heartland and a vital sea line with several choke points in the region. "Obviously, it's a part of the world where China continues to be very aggressive...," Kirby said.
Austin feels that it is important to meet with these partners. "He feels like that the reason for coming is absolutely validated in the discussions that he's having, and the reception that he's getting,” the press secretary said. “Both in Singapore and in Vietnam, [he received a] very warm welcome, and there is a very genuine interest in having the United States be engaged in this part of the world."
Austin himself said that he came to the region to listen to the leaders of these nations. Kirby said the secretary is getting a sense of the realities in Southeast Asia and the challenges these leaders face.