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APEC: THE ISSUES - Bonds over meal fostered U.S.-Vietnam diplomacy

Mon, November 7, 2011

This op-ed by Senator Daniel K. Akaka appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Sunday, November 6, 2011
This week, the eyes of the world will be on Hawaii as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation convenes its 2011 meeting in the Aloha State. Locally there are understandable worries about traffic, security measures and the inconveniences we'll experience. And there are questions about what the long-term beneficial impacts will be for Hawaii.

As we prepare for this historic gathering, I find myself remembering other significant meetings that took place here that helped to change the course of history.

In February 1993, I was one of four U.S. senators and State Department staff who participated in a series of meetings between civic and economic leaders from Vietnam and the United States. The president of the East-West Center, Michel Oksenberg, was also there.

Sponsored by the Aspen Institute, "The American-Vietnamese Dialogue" gathering was dedicated to the creation of personal relationships, a sort of people-to-people outreach. This meeting was especially significant because at that time there was no diplomatic relationship between the two countries. In fact, the U.S. had a trade embargo against Vietnam.

I believe the Aspen Institute chose Hawaii for many of the same reasons that the APEC 2011 Leaders' Meeting will take place here -- our multi-ethnic population, our geographic location as a midpoint between the U.S. mainland and Asia and gateway to the East and West, and the unique culture that can only exist in an island state.

We met on the island of Lanai and our discussions with the Vietnamese leaders were candid and challenging. The American delegation still carried the pain of losing tens of thousands of young soldiers in the Vietnam War. We were insistent that the search for those still missing in action continue with more cooperation from the Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese reminded the Americans that they too had lost young people, that millions of Vietnamese had died and that the social and economic consequences of the war continued to plague Vietnam.
In recognizing the staggering losses experienced on either side of the war, a remarkable thing happened. We responded to one another as caring, compassionate humans. Through the exchange of condolences, candid dialogue and in depth exploration of views, we found common ground and laid the foundation for the reconciliation negotiations that would follow.

Much was accomplished in our down time as well. I recall having lunch with Le Mai, Vietnam's deputy foreign minister and the East-West Center's Oksenberg. Le Mai told us that he was greatly disturbed by a speech on Vietnam that Oksenberg had written for President Jimmy Carter. The two men then talked about the speech and discovered that the U.S. and Vietnamese positions were very similar; it was the news media accounts that created division. That day, sharing a meal and conversation together, we came to consensus on one point of U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation. In our people-to-people dialogue, we found shared goals and became friends.

Shortly after the Lanai meeting, the United States agreed to lift the trade embargo against Vietnam, establish diplomatic relationships and provide social welfare assistance to Vietnam. The Vietnamese provided detailed documents to help in the search for missing Americans.

One USAID assistance program included funding for an educational program that was implemented by the University of Hawaii. Today, UH's Executive MBA program is renowned in Vietnam and many influential Vietnamese leaders have and continue to come to the East-West Center. In the past eight years, more than 350 Vietnamese have graduated from the UH's Vietnam MBA program, almost 300 from short courses, and its in-country alumni network is recognized as the largest among foreign programs.

Across our nation, the number of Vietnamese studying in the U.S. has grown from just over 100 by the end of 1993, to fewer than 800 in 1995, to more than 13,000 today. Last year more than 60 Vietnamese students studied at UH, most in EWC graduate programs.

When the APEC 2011 Hawaii meetings begin, a Vietnamese delegation nearly 50 strong will be here. I extend aloha and good wishes to them and to all of the other delegations who will be here.
In the words of one of the participants of the 1993 meeting: "Whatever our differences, we live in one world, and certain problems including environmental issues, health concerns and weapons proliferation cut across all boundaries. Let us talk, even if we differ, in an effort to reach an understanding on as many matters as possible while we await the next stages of our global revolution."

Daniel Akaka represents Hawaii in the U.S. Senate.


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