Press Briefing with Secretary Kerry, Deputy NSC Advisor Ben Rhodes, and Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz

7:16 P.M. ICT

MR. SCHULTZ: We are very fortunate to be joined by the Secretary of State, who is going to give us an update on the President’s visit after day two of three, here in Vietnam. He’s also going to offer some personal reflections on what this trip has meant and the progress we’ve seen, I’d say, in the years since you’ve led this effort a few decades ago.

So I’m going to turn it over to Secretary Kerry, who will have time for just a few questions. And then Ben and I will stick around for a few extra questions.

SECRETARY KERRY: Eric, thank you very much. Sorry to sidetrack there for a minute.

Good evening, everybody. It’s really a pleasure for me to be here with all of you, but it’s also a tremendous privilege to be here with President Obama on what is unquestionably an historic demarcation effort.

I have to tell you that for many years I have looked forward to a time when people would hear the word “Vietnam” or the name “Vietnam” and think more of a country than a conflict. And with President Obama’s visit this week, with the crowds that we saw along the street today, the remarkably warm and generous welcome, the unbelievable excitement of people that we are here with a President of the United States at this moment is absolutely palpable, and I think it is a demarcation point.

I think, clearly, we will never fail to honor the sacrifice of those who fought here and of what their dreams were for this country. But I think one can say genuinely, definitively, without failing to honor past service, that we have reached a new point in our relationship now.

I will tell you that when I first came over here around 1990 or so, not that many Americans had traveled at that point in time officially, from the government of the United States certainly. And in Hanoi, there literally were very few cars. None of the street lights worked. People were still in black pajamas. There was a law that said they couldn’t talk to foreigners. And the embargo was in full force. There were just bicycles, massive numbers of bicycles and people riding to work. Very few hotels in the city. I stayed in a government guesthouse. And the transition from that moment — when America decided we were going to sort of start to become engaged — until now is nothing less than stunning.

This is a country that is practicing a raging form of capitalism. It is engaged and has been called the tiger of this region. And I think that, by every measure, this is a significant emphasis on the policy of President Obama with respect to the rebalance to Asia. This is a prime example of the way in which the United States has been able to forge a new relationship out of the ashes of war and to create real peace.

And when people ask what does it mean to have lifted the lethal weapons ban — what it means is it’s normal. We don’t have lethal embargoes or bans for countries that we treat normally. And after 20 years of recognition, it is time to honor that normality. The fact is that it is also a very important decision in terms of making certain that Vietnam has the equipment that it needs in order to be able to defend itself and to stand up as part of ASEAN, as part of a rule of law, a rules-based structure — which is what President Obama has been trying to seek both in TPP, as well as in our overall policy.

So this visit and this moment, in my judgement, reaffirms what has been clear for some period of time to many of us: The United States and Vietnam no longer define our relationship by the enmities of a bygone era.

Now, I often point out that the young adults of America and Vietnam were both born after normal relations were established 20 years ago, and what was extraordinary to my generation could not be more routine or natural to them. And all you have to do is look and measure this transformation that has taken place.

Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 60,000 American visitors to Vietnam on an annual basis; today, there’s nearly half a million. Twenty years ago, bilateral trade in goods was only $450 million; today, it’s more than $45 billion a year. Twenty years ago, there were fewer than 800 Vietnamese students studying in the United States; today, nearly 19,000. And through the Lower Mekong Initiative — a place that I know well — we are working to improve Vietnam’s resilience to the effects of climate change, focusing our aid on clean energy and the development of sustainable infrastructure and ecosystem resource management.

We’re also working together, excitingly, in the academic arena. And I can’t emphasize how key that is in terms of transformational long-term impact of a relationship. The Institute of International Education, Arizona State University, Harvard Medical School, the University of Hawaii all have partnerships with institutions in Vietnam, several involving participation by the private sector. And tomorrow, I will have the privilege of launching the formal launch of Fulbright University Vietnam, which will be a full-fledged, non-profit and totally academically free institution.

Our two countries are also cooperating on security issues — something that none of us could have imagined 45, 50 years ago. Our Coast Guards and our Navies are working together. Vietnam is a partner in America’s Global Peace Operations Initiative. In 2014, Vietnam began contributing to U.N. peace operations in a small way, but with plans to send engineering, medical, and other specialized units in the future. And along with allies and partners, the United States is helping personnel from Vietnam to prepare for those deployments. And one of the things we did in the course of this visit is sign an agreement which will permit the pre-deployment of supplies in the event of emergency.

So let me just emphasize that measure this visit alone, major business agreements — Pratt & Whitney, Boeing, wind energy, the Fulbright University, the Peace Corps coming to Vietnam, the Mekong Delta Initiative, Fulbright University, TPP — it seems to me that that alone, without all the other things I added, defines rebalance impact and a relationship that is really nothing less than transformational.

Now, there is no question, as the President said earlier today, that our government and the government in Hanoi continue to have differences, obviously. The fact that we are cooperating in all of these other areas doesn’t mean there is a sudden erasing of fundamental differences in how we organize our governments, how we deal directly with our citizens. And so the good news, however, is we’re talking about that. We talk about that very directly. We talked about it today. We talked about it yesterday.

And today, you saw the President meet with some folks in their civil society — people who represented disabilities, people who represented church, and so forth. That could not have been imagined 20 years ago. That meeting today, while it lacked three people that had been invited and we hoped had been there, was still a remarkably significant meeting because it took place. And that’s the first time a President of the United States sat down with civil society in the capital of this country and talked in an open way as he did today.

It is clear that we and Vietnam are engaged today in a way I can tell you that none of us could have imagined during the war. And it is clear that Vietnam is reaching towards this globalized world of modernity. After all, millions of people in Vietnam already freely use — I think it’s something like 38 million people and some 29 million or so under the age of 25 who use Facebook. So thousands of Vietnamese workers are already freely associating to defend their interests. And under TPP, those rights will be increased, as well as environmental protection.

So the Vietnamese are the ones who are asking for the guarantees of a government to put into law the recognition of their freedoms. And there will be, shortly, an effort within the parliament to codify certain rights in ways that are reflected in the constitution of the country.

So the more progress that occurs in those areas, the more likely it is — as President Obama explained very clearly — the more likely it is that our bilateral relationship, which has already come so far, is going to be able to reach even greater potential. And that’s why we’re here. That’s why this is significant. And that’s why I think this is worth the fight.

So with that, I am happy to open it up.

Q Thank you, Mr. Secretary. The China Daily is warning the United States not to spark a fire in Asia. And I’m quoting now: “The United States and Vietnam must not spark a regional tinderbox” — noting the concerns of trying to curb the rise of China. What’s your reaction to what the China Daily has written? And if I could follow, based on what you’ve observed in the time since 1990, is there any doubt in your mind that there will be an even greater openness here in Vietnam in the years to come? And how can you manage that as a country that still has so many fundamental differences between governments?

SECRETARY KERRY: Between — I’m sorry.

Q The U.S. and Vietnam.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, look, we’re making progress. Last year — I mean, they released — I’m going to take the second part of your question first. They released a number of prisoners. They had about 160, I think; 60 or so were released. There had been increased freedoms of worship. The church has been recognized. Handicapped efforts have been recognized. So there’s some progress. Is it as much progress as we want? No, not at all. And there is going to be a journey ahead of us while we continue to work on those things. But I really think that’s at the center of President Obama’s foreign policy. That’s what we’re doing in Burma. That’s what we’re doing in Cuba. That’s what we’re doing in Iraq and in other places, Afghanistan, where transformation is taking place.

Folks, I got to tell you, we are impatient by nature, and that’s good. We get a lot done in America because we are impatient. But you can’t be impatient — you can be impatient, but you’ve got to also recognize the time it takes for cultural transformation, for generational transformation, for people to be able to learn how to manage and exercise rights and certain freedoms. And we went through that ourselves. I mean, how can we turn away from our own history? It was only in the 1960s, when I was in college, that we began the battle — or the next evolution of the battle to have full voting rights in America and full civil rights, and Jim Crow. That wasn’t so long ago in our history, for a country that began with the Constitution we began with.

So for countries that don’t begin with that, or don’t have any of that tradition, we have to recognize that road that they’re on is going to be a roller coaster ride to some degree. But as long as it’s moving in the same direction, that’s what is important. As long as the United States itself remains faithful to our values and we are always pushing in the right direction, as the President did today, I think we can absolutely look forward with confidence to this transformation taking hold.

I personally, I do not know how — I mean, I was sitting on the Commerce Committee of the Senate when we rewrote the rules for telecommunications. We didn’t even think about information management. And this was 1996. Look at where we are 20 years later in our own revolution in terms of that technology and communication. I came into a Senate that didn’t have an Internet, and look at where we are. So life changes, and it will change here — because you cannot function in the modern, globalized marketplace of today without opening up ultimately, and without being able to be competitive in terms of purchase, sales, communications, and so forth.

Now, on the first part of your question about China, I’d say several things. First of all, this is not about China. Nothing that we did here or are doing here is focused on China. It is focused on the fastest-growing marketplace in the world. It is focused on a rules-based order that we have consistently — Republican and Democrat, President alike — held at the center of our policies. And it is focused on strengthening the ability in this region to be able to promote that rules-based order.

Now, part of that rules-based order, frankly, requires the peaceful resolution of the problems of the South China Sea. We have consistently urged in private conversations and public conversation with China that they respect the rule of law and that they engage diplomatically with the countries that are contesting claims and that they not move unilaterally.

If you want to point to the possibilities of tinderbox and of perhaps igniting something, I would caution China, as President Obama and others have, to not unilaterally move to engage in reclamation activities and militarization of islands and areas that are part of the claims that are in contest today. We don’t take a position on those claims. China should note that. We’re not saying China is wrong in its claims; we’re simply saying, resolve it peacefully, resolve it through a rules-based structure.

So nothing we’ve done here is out of the ordinary. We have lifted an embargo, which was out of the ordinary. The embargo itself, the lethal arms embargo, was a restraint on normality. Now we have a normal relation, so we lift it. That’s very normal. Not out of order, and certainly not inflammatory. And I hope China will read this correctly, because our hope is for normal respect for maritime law and for the relationships that are so key in this region in terms of resolving the code of conduct and moving forward in a diplomatic way to resolve these differences.

Q Secretary Kerry, while we have you, on another topic — the battle against ISIS and terrorism. So what extent now, when you look at the Egypt air crash, is the thinking that this was or was not an act of terrorism? And we’re hearing a lot about the battle for Fallujah beginning. How do you see that playing out? How long is that going to take? Why now? And do you think this is really — there’s been a lot said about how the administration has turned the tide in this effort.

SECRETARY KERRY: I don’t have any information — particularly on the road like this, I just have no way of authoritatively commenting at all on the EgyptAir crash. I’ve seen catches of the news, and I’m reading what people are reading. But I don’t think it’s my job to surmise. I think that has too many consequences. So let’s let the investigators investigate and let them do what they’re doing, and we’ll see where we are.

With respect to ISIS, what Fallujah means is that we’re continuing the process that President Obama has put in play to defeat ISIS. And we’re going to defeat them. I’ve said that again and again. And I think I’ve been backed up week to week by the increased efforts that we are seeing be successful — with communities in Iraq being returned to their inhabitants, with ISIS being compressed in its area of activity, though it is still lethal. We know that. And we see them lashing out, to some degree, because they’re not able to take territory. They’re not able to mount lasting holding actions. They can attack and move, and that’s still dangerous, and we see them with suicide attacks, obviously. And unfortunately, that will continue, as we continue to press the battle against them.

But I think what Fallujah means is that our generals and our cooperation with the Iraqis and with the full coalition of 66 countries have a clear strategy. They’re moving very systematically. And I believe we’re making progress. And the President has instructed all of us to try to think about ways in which we could accelerate that, for obvious reasons. The faster we can eliminate Daesh as a threat force, the better off the world would be, because it has impacts on economies, it has impacts on travel, it has an impact on the threat and safety. And so that’s the President’s instructions to us, and that’s what we’re trying to do.

Q Mr. Secretary, you said that this is not about China. But it’s hard not to see many of the President’s comments: “Big nations should not bully smaller ones.” “Vietnam is an independent and sovereign nation, and no other nation can impose its will on you.” These were all big lines that got a lot of applause today, and they got a lot of applause because the audience clearly understood that the President was talking about China and Vietnam. And so huge parts of this trip are clearly directed at pushing back on China, both in the South China Sea. And the President is going to be going to Japan. He’s going to talk about proliferation. In this region, the most important proliferation problem is in North Korea, which is Chinese technology gotten through Pakistan, and China has the most leverage in the North Korea situation. So again and again — even TPP is a trade organization that you all have sort set up without China, in the Pacific. So it’s hard not to see each one of the things that you’re talking about, the speeches that you’re making — and even now you’re talking about you immediately pivot to the South China Sea — without seeing China being a huge part of this trip.

SECRETARY KERRY: Well, I think what’s happening is you’re confusing, if you don’t mind my saying so, respectfully, the focus and the direction of what we’re doing versus some of the impact, collaterally, of what we do. I’d obviously be either misleading you or pretty stupid if I didn’t suggest that order in the South China Sea and encouraging peaceful resolution and making sure that ASEAN is strong doesn’t collaterally have an impact on perceptions there. But it’s not focused on China.

President Obama could not have been more clear. I’ve said it a hundred times — and we mean it: We welcome the rise of a strong China, a China that assumes responsibilities as a global superpower leader, and plays out its responsibilities in ways that are helpful. And that means encouraging peace and stability. As long as China is playing by those rules and adopting it, none of this is focused on China. So it’s really something we have worked on in our country and stood for since World War II. I mean, we’ve been working on this rules-based structure, freedom of navigation, codes of conduct, peaceful resolution, diplomatic process. That’s the hallmark of American policy for throughout the Cold War and beyond.

So it’s not specifically focused on China. Obviously there is a collateral impact to the degree China chooses to do X, Y or Z. And so we’re very clear — we encourage China not to be unilaterally militarizing, unilaterally moving. But we’re not focused on China. I just can’t say it enough. We’re focused on this region. And I think the primary threat of the entire region is North Korea, Kim Jong-un, and the proliferation activities of the DPRK. That’s the primary threat. It’s actually perhaps the lead threat globally with respect to one of the two or three currently.

I think these guys are going to take over here. I answered more than I thought I was doing.

Thank you. Good to see you. Thank you very much.

MR. SCHULTZ: Ben and I are your second act and happy to take any remaining questions.

Nancy.

Q Eric, did the administration push back at all — with the activists that who were denied access to the meeting this morning — with the Vietnamese government, register a protest or anything?

MR. RHODES: Yes, absolutely. We’ve made clear that when the President travels around the world, he meets with government and he meets with civil society. And we’ve done that here in Vietnam. We’ve done it in Cuba. We did it in Myanmar. We did it in Ethiopia. And we set up a similar meeting here. This morning — or overnight, really, we learned that there were a number of individuals who were being prevented from, or dissuaded from attending the meeting with the President. We protested to the government. Ultimately we were able to meet with the group of people that the President had this morning, which included advocates around issues like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, disability rights, freedom of worship. But there were a number of individuals who were not able to attend.

Q Was that —

MR. RHODES: No. No, I think the Secretary identified the number of people. What I’d say, though, is number one, as Secretary Kerry pointed out, the fact of an American President or any head of state or government meeting with independent civil society in Hanoi is unprecedented. And so, clearly, this was something that was a source of significant discomfort for the government. And that alone I think demonstrates that we’re able, through this relationship, to hear from different voices and to lift up these different issues. And I think certainly the President benefited from this conversation today, and made the point that we’re going to continue to remain engaged with civil society.

To the second point I’d make, going forward, even as we are elevating this relationship in a host of ways — our security cooperation, our commercial ties, our people-to-people ties — clearly human rights is going to continue to be on the agenda. And that’s part of what we wanted to demonstrate today, that we’re not beyond all of our differences, we’re going to continue to raise them.

And then the final point I’d make on this is we believe very strongly that we are going to be better-positioned to advance human rights through a policy of engagement; that if we were to withhold the relationship with the United States and try to use the fact of cooperation in different areas to pressure the government to do certain things, we would be less able to, over time, encourage positive reform than if we’re here and we’re engaged.

And if you look at the transformation that’s taking place here that Secretary Kerry talked about, that includes things that are very empowering like the ability for people to have access to Facebook, like the enormous interconnectivity that you have between young people here and young people across the region and around the world. The opening that takes place is creating a space for discussion and debate and dialogue that is new. And as the Secretary said, we’ve seen some progress in recent years, but certainly not sufficient progress. And we’re going to continue to press the government on all those issues.

MR. SCHULTZ: Can I just add one thing for Nancy, which is the President, I think it’s noteworthy, chose to raise this in front of all of you — meaning he thinks it’s significant enough to make sure that all of you knew about this. And I think that’s indicative of the fact that he’s going to press on this and make it a priority moving forward.

Michelle.

Q Last night, during his speech to the Vietnamese people, he seemed to be approaching this extremely delicately. Given that this had just happened, and given that just yesterday the BBC was told by the government to stop reporting — I mean, it’s kind of happening boldly while he’s here. But he approached the whole thing by first talking about the problems that were in the U.S. I mean, that’s how he opened the discussion. And then he didn’t get very specific or critical in any way. He just said — he kind of extolled the virtues of certain freedoms in a general sense. It seemed like he was much harder on the subject and more specific in places like Kenya, for example. Was there a reason he had to approach this so delicately?

MR. RHODES: Well, first of all, I think there’s been a consistent way in which the President raises these issues anywhere — Cuba, Vietnam, Kenya. He discusses what we stand for, what we believe, and the universal values that he thinks that all people should be able to have access to, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly. So I don’t think he was speaking delicately in any way.

In fact, that speech was broadcast here in Vietnam, and those are not things that people in Vietnam hear frequently. They do not hear leaders of the stature of President Obama discussing those values openly in Hanoi with that kind of platform.

Secondly, look, we have a very complicated history in Vietnam. And I think it’s important that the President make clear here that we recognize that history and we’re not coming here to impose a system of government on Vietnam, but rather we’re coming here to engage the Vietnamese people. And part of that engagement is going to be advocacy around these issues. And people know what we stand for. They know that we raise individual human rights cases. They know that we advocate for the types of reforms that we’d like to see here.

For instance, if you look at TPP, a main sticking point here in Vietnam was the fact that in order to come into TPP they had to allow for independent labor unions; they had to allow for fair wages; they had to allow for limitations on workers’ hours. Those are human rights advances that were embedded with TPP. That’s how engagement allows us to advance the types of reforms that we’d like to see.

And the last thing I’d say about this, Michelle, is Vietnam is not going to change its political system overnight, and it’s not going to change its political system because we tell them to. What’s going to ultimately bring greater change and reform to Vietnam is the Vietnamese people. We’ve already seen that progress take place in the last two decades, during normalization. In some ways, we’ve seen it accelerate in recent years as people are more connected and expect more of their government. We’ve seen laws pass that begin to address issues of human rights, including the ability of people to protest their detention. And ultimately we’d like to see laws pass that address issues like freedom of speech and assembly.

But it’s going to take time for Vietnam to evolve. But the final thing I’d say about this is, I think the Vietnamese people know what the President stands for. And if you look at the reception that he got in Hanoi and the reception that he got coming into Ho Chi Minh City, I’ve traveled all over the world with President Obama, and other than Myanmar, I can’t think of another country that received him like that. And those are people who know exactly what he stands for and believe that he’s helping the Vietnamese people achieve a better future.

Q Another question on about Navy access here in Vietnam. We just got back from the Philippines, involved in exercises, and we have now the ability to access five bases in the Philippines we gave up in 1991. Now we’re back in. Another one is the South China Sea. Many of the allies we’ve got are giving us more access to bases and use for the Navy. What’s going to happen in Vietnam? When and how, and how big?

MR. RHODES: Well, look, I obviously don’t want to compare the relationship that we have with the Philippines, a treaty ally, to Vietnam. What I would say is we are deepening our cooperation with Vietnam in a number of areas. One of those includes maritime security and having discussions around how we can help enhance their capability with respect to maritime security.

We’ve also had conversations about disaster response and how we can perhaps pre-position certain resources that can make Vietnam more effective in working with other ASEAN partners in responding to natural disasters.

I think, going forward, as we consider the relationship between the United States Nave and Vietnam, that’s going to be an evolving conversation. And when it comes to discussions related to what types of cooperation we might pursue, what types of port calls there may be, I think that’s going to be an unfolding process in the coming months and years. But the fact of the matter is, by deepening our collaboration with Vietnam and with ASEAN, by removing this vestige of the Cold War with the lethal arms ban, we’re able to have a conversation with Vietnam like we have with other countries within ASEAN, and we expect them to be an important partner of the United States just like we’ve been deepening cooperation with other ASEAN countries.

MR. SCHULTZ: We have time for one or two more.

Margaret.

Q Ben, can you tell us if you got any specific commitment on this trip from the Vietnamese government on human rights, and whether that leverage, specifically when it comes to weapons, is gone? Or is this like a case-by-case basis — every time they ask for another piece of policing equipment, we have a conversation with them about freedom of assembly? How does that work? And can you also give us your read on the level of instability in North Korea, given that the Secretary just said it’s the lead global threat?

MR. RHODES: Well, on North Korea, I think he’s referring to the fact of their nuclear program and that they’re certainly the leading threat as it relates to nuclear proliferation.

With respect to commitments, yes, the government did indicate to us that it was committed to pursuing additional reforms in this space. In some cases, that involves the implementation of laws that have been passed that allow for more rights. In some cases, they were referencing individuals who we have raised with them. And in some cases, they were referring to upcoming legislative efforts that they might pursue.

So it’s a broad discussion around the trajectory of progress here in Vietnam that focused both on individual human rights cases of concern — like Father Ly who was released the other day — but also legal reform that codifies certain rights, like the ability of people to protest their detention, seek greater transparency from the government, seek the right to assemble, seek the ability to have a civil society that is independent of the government.

So this will be an ongoing conversation. The government indicates to us that they are moving in a direction on a number of these issues. We will wait and see whether or not they follow through on those commitments. We didn’t define this relationship as a strict quid pro quo as it relates to our engagement as against specific steps. But what they certainly understand is the ability of us to cooperate depends upon continued progress on a range of issues.

And so just as TPP requires them to fulfill their labor commitments — because if they are not allowing for the registration of independent labor unions, and if they’re not allowing for the types of workers’ rights that are codified in TPP, they won’t get the benefits of TPP, because TPP is enforceable. So they have to do those things, they have to implement those laws in order to get those protections lifted and have the market access that comes with the agreement. That’s an indication of how a broadening relationship maintains the ability for us to raise human rights concerns.

In the lethal weapons ban, we have now lifted the prohibition on the sale of weapons. But as with any other country, we do review each weapons sale on a case-by-case basis. So it will continue to be the case that as we are considering certain arms sales to Vietnam we will look at a variety of factors, and it’s certainly going to be the case if our administration, Congress, future administrations, I’m sure, will look at the trajectory of the human rights picture in Vietnam as they make those decisions. So that continues to be the case going forward.

Again, we believe that, broadly speaking, what we’ve done through normalization with Vietnam is empowering the Vietnamese people. And it is ultimately leading to a future where they’re going to have greater rights and opportunities, and that we can push that process forward much more effectively by deepening the relationship than by pulling back.

Q Any other — to be free?

MR. RHODES: Again, they’ve released a number of prisoners over the last year. We would like to see an additional number of political prisoners released. I’m not going to make predictions about specific cases. But it’s fair to say, here, as in other countries in this part of the world, we are regularly raising through human rights dialogue and other channels, including on this visit, cases that are of concern to us.

Q Can you shed some light on the pushback related to last night, such as who was involved and what the Vietnamese government’s response was? And secondly, the President said a number of times that the United States is demonstrating its commitment to fully normalizing relations. Can you explain what is left to do to fully normalize relations? Is it just a matter of implementing decisions that have already been made, or are there additional policy decisions that need to be made?

MR. RHODES: Well, again, as we became aware of individuals who were facing obstacles in attending the meeting we raised those concerns at a variety of levels. Secretary Kerry was certainly involved in those efforts, as were people in the White House. This is something that we’ve done in many countries. We faced obstacles and concerns around participants in those types of meetings in other countries, and we raised them through the White House and through the State Department.

Ultimately, we were not able to have every participant at this meeting. But I do want to be very clear that we have to use or engagement as a means of raising these issues. If the President wasn’t pursuing this policy, he wouldn’t be sitting in Hanoi with a series of civil society and human rights activists talking about these issue and talking about them publicly, and giving a speech about it that reached the Vietnamese people. So if we just stayed in Washington and expressed our concerns we’d never have the opportunity to have that type of conversation. And that’s a conversation that has never taken place before in Hanoi — which is precisely why the government was so uncomfortable with it.

And we deeply believe that by being engaged, by coming here, we are having a conversation that would not otherwise happen. We are able to hear the voices of those civil society activists. That gives a greater platform to their ideas, just as we’re able to engage with and hear the ideas of the government.

And if you look at the Vietnamese people, again, if our focus is on how are we helping the Vietnamese people, there are few countries in the world where the United States is as highly regarded as here in Vietnam. You see that in every public opinion survey; you see it on the streets here today. I think that is a testament to the fact that the Vietnamese believe this relationship benefits them.

Q Can you say what it was that did to — were they physically arrested and hauled off to jail? Was it house arrest? Warned? And to the best of your knowledge now, are they free to move about?

MR. RHODES: Look, Matt, I would just say that there are a variety of ways in which governments seek to make clear to people that they shouldn’t attend a certain meeting. I personally am not familiar enough with each individual case, I think, to be able to give an accurate rendering that I know to be completely true. What we do know is that, using a variety of different methods, a number of people felt either prevented from or uncomfortable attending the meeting. And President Obama volunteered that to the press because he wanted people to know that not everybody who was invited was able to attend.

We will certainly be following up and have followed up to make sure that all of those individuals are free and they’re not being in any way subject to any punishment. And I think that’s something that our embassy does on a regular basis. These are individuals who are regular sources of information to not just the United States but to advocates on these issues around the world. And they’re the ones who have the courage, frankly, to take those positions. They’re the ones who assume the hardship of staking out positions that may put them on the other side of the government here.

But what our commitment is, is, number one, that we’re going to engage them just as we engage the government as part of normalization. Number two, we’re going to continue to raise these issues privately with the government. And number three, that President Obama discusses these issues publicly as well.

And, look, the public engagement that we have here should not be underestimated. When you talk about a Fulbright University opening, it’s the first independently accredited university that has the ability to exercise a freedom of academic pursuits that is not subject to government restrictions. When you talk about our exchange programs, that’s connecting people from Vietnam to other countries and to the United States, and we have 12,000 people participating in that exchange program. So there are all kinds of ways that we are able to demonstrate our commitment to universal values, including advocacy on individual cases.

MR. SCHULTZ: Carol asked about normalizing.

MR. RHODES: Well, look, we have, I think, in many ways removed many of the vestiges of the past as it relates to Vietnam. The prohibition on lethal arms sales was certainly a vestige of the Cold War. And, frankly, the Vietnamese agreement to allow the Peace Corps to come here I think demonstrates on their side that they are putting behind a vestige of the Cold War.

At the same time, having a normal relationship with another country does not necessarily define the extent to which your partnership develops. So, for instance, we were discussing earlier our military and security cooperation. We are at a nascent stage of that collaboration. As we develop a closer relationship with Vietnam and as we look at all of the different factors in our relationship, I think that will have a bearing on just how close the collaboration is between our militaries on a variety of issues.

Similarly, again, as I said on TPP, as they implement their commitments, that will have a direct bearing on how much they are able to benefit from the agreement, assuming it’s approved by the respective parliaments and our Congress.

So, again, we have, I think, removed the barriers to this relationship, but at the same time, we haven’t established just how far it can evolve. And at the end of the day, we always have the closest relationships with countries with whom we share broad interests and a shared set of values. And as this relationship evolves, I think we’ll see how far it can go.

Now, as Secretary Kerry said, if you look at how far it’s come in just the last 20 years, it suggests that there’s enormous potential here in Vietnam. And look, we’re — I know we’re spending a lot of time, as we appropriately should be, discussing the very serious differences between our governments, but it is worth stepping back and reflecting on just how extraordinary it is, given the history between our two countries, given the war, that you have a U.S. President received as he’s been by both the government and people of Vietnam on this trip.

This is different from many other countries around the world when you look at the history. And the fact that we are able to be where we are today with Vietnam in terms of our commercial ties, our security ties, our people-to-people ties, I think it’s a testament to the fact that countries get more out of pursuing peaceful cooperation than they do out of conflict.

MR. SCHULTZ: Let’s take one more. Kevin.

Q Thanks. I appreciate that, Eric. Ben, I probably speak for a lot of people in the room who are looking for you to sort of unpack some of the comments that you made in that Times Magazine article, in particular when you said “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only experience consists of being on the political campaigns. It’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.” And I’m sure that struck a lot of people as a curious statement by you.

And if I could follow, you’ve been accused of misleading the timeline as far as the negotiations were concerned on the Iran nuclear deal. It was also suggested that you were promoting a narrative that the administration was dealing with moderates when in fact, it was all along dealing with hardliners. If you could clarify that, I’d appreciate it. I know you’ve discussed this at least in part, but I don’t think I’ve had a chance to engage you personally or have you comment on these things on camera.

MR. RHODES: Well, look, on the second question, many of you saw the Medium post I wrote after the article came out. I mean, you all covered the Iran deal for many years. At no point did I say in that article that there was any false narrative as it relates to the Iranian hardliners and moderates.

I think if we review the facts, they’re very clear. We had wanted to pursue an Iranian nuclear deal for a very long time. President Obama campaigned on that platform. I went to work for him in the summer of 2007, when he was having a debate in the Democratic primary about whether to pursue diplomacy with Iran. So that was no secret.

The fact of the matter is we pursued several efforts to make progress on nuclear negotiations in the first term, some of them quite public, and they did not go anywhere. It is also true that we were able to establish that we could have a discreet channel of communication with the Iranians through Oman during the President’s first term. However, those discussions did not go anywhere. They were not substantive. They did not in any way foresee the deal that was ultimately reached. All it was, was our ability to establish that we could have a discussion with the Iranians, which we were already having in other forums, like the P5+1.

So this was dead in the water in our first term. And that’s precisely why we spent so much time imposing sanctions on Iran, because we did not see a change in the position of the Iranian government.

It is also undeniably true that that changed after the election of Hassan Rouhani. And what happened after President Rouhani was elected is that President Obama wrote him a letter and indicated that we wanted to pursue a dialogue on nuclear issues. Very quickly, that led to the negotiations that began in secret between the United States and Iran in the summer leading to the fall of 2013, and then very quickly moved into the P5+1 negotiations that were launched at the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 2013.

So there may be a debate that is I think a very important debate about the degree of moderation of different elements of the Iranian leadership — the difference between a Qasem Soleimani or President Rouhani, for instance, in their respective views of Iranian foreign policy. Some people may not want to apply the term “moderate” to anybody in Iran, given their continued violation of international norms and support for terrorism. But the fact of the matter is, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif approached the nuclear issue in a different way, in a way that was more moderate than the previous regime under President Ahmadinejad. And we were able to get a nuclear deal because there was a different regime and different administration in Tehran.

So with respect to the timeline, we have always been absolutely clear about the timeline of our interest in an Iranian nuclear deal and how it unfolded. And, frankly, the areas of that timeline that remained secret for some time have long ago since been publicly discussed, including our talks in Oman.

So I do think that it’s very important — I know, while there’s debate on the Iranian issue as it relates to the article, that it’s clear that what we’ve said at podiums like this for years is what I would say to any of you, which is that there was a sea change after the election of President Rouhani. That doesn’t mean that we agree with everything that he does. There continue to be ballistic missile launches. There continues to be support for terrorism. There continues to be threats to Israel.

But on the specific question of the nuclear deal, we did have an administration under President Rouhani that was different from the administration of President Ahmadinejad. And I think that there’s just — anybody who’s covered this issue and looked at it closely would find that to be the case, irrespective of other views of Iranian actions or U.S. policy.

On the first question, all I’d say is, look, I’ve been doing this job for over seven years. I’ve been working with some of you for that entire time or part of that time. I think that you all know how much I take seriously our responsibility to engage with you and to try to communicate our policies on very complicated and difficult issues.

So I don’t want to take bits of quotes that were pulled out of different places and get into a media commentary here. I addressed this the other day and I’ll say something similar here today, which is simply that I think those of you who have worked with me know how much I respect the role of the media in what we do, how much, even if I might disagree with you, I want you to understand where we’re coming from and what we’re trying to accomplish, and, frankly, how much I enjoy being on trips just like this and talking about issues like this remarkable transformation in our relationship with Vietnam.

So, again, I just think that the people who know me and have worked with me know exactly how I approach these issues, how I think about my responsibilities and my engagement with you. It’s something that I really have enjoyed for the last seven and a half years and will enjoy doing for the next several months.

MR. SCHULTZ: Thank you.

Q So did you or did you not say that —

MR. RHODES: Again, I’m not going to parse quotes. Again, I’m telling you I think I have a body of experience that you all are familiar with, and you can make your judgments based on that body of experience.

MR. SCHULTZ: Thank you.

END

8:13 P.M. ICT

Source: White House