Webinar on “The Winding Road to US – Vietnam Reconciliation: Reflections from Ambassador Ted Osius”

In this webinar, Ted Osius shared his insights on US-Vietnam reconciliation efforts and discussed the future trajectory of bilateral relations amid the shifting regional geopolitical landscape.


Thursday, 18 November 2021 – Ted Osius, former American ambassador to Vietnam from 2014 to 2017, recently published his new book Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation with Vietnam, which offers a vivid first-hand account of the various forms of diplomacy that brought about the reconciliation between the two former foes. He shared two inspiring stories from the book in a webinar titled “The Winding Road to US – Vietnam Reconciliation: Reflections from Ambassador Ted Osius.”

Ambassador Ted Osius offered vivid first-hand account of the various forms of diplomacy that brought about the reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam. With Dr Le Hong Hiep as moderator. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The first story revolved around a conversation between Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, and Senator John McCain, a Republican, during a flight to Kuwait in 1991. The two senators were not only on the opposite sides of the political spectrum but also experienced the Vietnam War differently. While Kerry supported the anti-war movement, McCain was captured by the Vietnamese and held captive in Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi for years. Despite their differences, they agreed that it was necessary to normalise relations with Vietnam and find ways to account for the still missing American soldiers. What made US-Vietnam normalisation possible, according to Osius, was the improbable friendship between Kerry and McCain. The story demonstrated that building trust and relationships matters in diplomacy.

The second story is about what Osius considers his most significant achievement as the US ambassador to Vietnam – the historic meeting between President Barack Obama and General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong at the Oval Office in 2015. Having received the suggestion from then Deputy Foreign Minister Ha Kim Ngoc, he soon realised how significant such a meeting would be to US-Vietnam relations. He thought that the relationship would improve if a top Vietnamese leader and a “conservative figure” like Trong believed building trust with the United States was possible. It was a difficult task to undertake as the US president only hosts heads of state, not party leaders, at the White House. Nonetheless, Osius decided to take risks and managed to convince Senator John Kerry, who then personally persuaded Obama to agree to host Trong at the Oval Office. It proved to be a wise decision. During the meeting, President Obama discussed the possibility of Vietnam joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and confirmed that the United States respected Vietnam’s political systems, which Vietnam perceived as an important gesture. Osius highlighted that the meeting was instrumental to greater bilateral cooperation in security, trade, education, environment, and public health.

After reciting the two stories, Osius discussed the future trajectory of the bilateral relations amid the evolving regional geopolitical environment. He noted that notwithstanding the lack of a “strategic partnership” status, US-Vietnam relations had already showcased elements of one. He further added that the Vietnamese military cooperated with the US military more than with any other army in the world, and the two countries also collaborated on regional and global issues. Notably, maritime security cooperation has been gradually strengthened, as reflected in naval cooperation and the US donation of coast guard vessels to Vietnam. There have been two visits by US aircraft carriers to Vietnam since 2018, and more visits could take place in the coming years.

Regarding the development of minilateral groupings in the region, such as the Quad and AUKUS, Osius emphasised that the main goal of these mechanisms was to preserve regional peace and stability. Therefore, he believed that Vietnamese leaders would not oppose them. Osius stressed that China was not the only driver behind US-Vietnam ties. The close partnership was also important economically and was needed for both countries to overcome the shadow of the Vietnam War. Osius was also cognizant of Hanoi’s efforts to maintain good relations with Beijing, which necessitated caution in moving too close to the United States. However, he remained optimistic, noting that “there is no ceiling on what is possible” in US – Vietnam relations.

Osius also talked about challenges in bilateral ties. The US withdrawal from the TPP was an obstacle to more tangible economic cooperation with Vietnam. However, there are opportunities for the two countries in the field of digital economy, which will support Vietnam’s COVID-19 recovery. Another hurdle is that Hanoi has been slow in developing defence ties with Washington as it carefully balances between the United States and China. According to Osius, this approach might not prepare the country for potential regional contingencies in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. Thus, he suggested that Vietnam would benefit from more robust defence cooperation with the United States, not as an ally but as a partner. Another challenge that Osius brought up was differences on the issue of human rights. He welcomed Vietnam’s progress in promoting freedom of religion but stressed that there were still limits to how far people could express their opinions. He expressed the hope that Vietnam would allow greater freedom of speech.

During the webinar, Osius also answered questions raised by the participants on the role of the Vietnamese American community and the San Francisco-Ho Chi Minh City Sister City Committee in bilateral reconciliation, US-Vietnam cooperation on resolving outstanding war legacies, the role of US allies in facilitating US-Vietnam relations, and the US-ASEAN relationship.