Vietnam’s place in Asia’s Century

Vietnam’s place in Asia’s Century

Jack Straw12 September 2008
Hanoi Law University, Vietnam

Jack Straw has given a speech on Vietnam and the Asian Century at Hanoi Law University during his official visit to Vietnam.

The Right Honourable Jack Straw MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice:


Mr Le Minh Tam, ladies and gentlemen, leaders, lecturers and students from Hanoi Law University and Vietnam National University, Chevening Scholars – good afternoon.

It is my great pleasure to be here in Hanoi to speak to you today and to bring the greetings of the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

I had the privilege of meeting His Excellency Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and other Vietnamese ministers when they visited the UK in March, and Minister of Justice Ha Hung Cuong in June this year. But it is with regret I confess that despite visiting many parts of the globe during my career, I have never before visited Vietnam.

This is particularly the case given how strongly I felt about what was happening to this country 40 years ago – when as a student myself, and President of the National Union of Students back in the United Kingdom, I was involved in protests against what I believed to be an unjust war.

Forty years hence, Vietnam is unrecognisable from those darkest of days.

Looking around Hanoi, from every vantage point, one can see an astonishing transition from old to new.

Vietnam’s progress is written in the sky. Colonial architecture sits alongside that of your more recent past, as well as your ancient history, soaring up to the skyscrapers and office blocks that signal Vietnam’s entry into the 21st century.

Since diplomatic relations were established between our two nations 35 years ago, the pace of Vietnam’s development has been extraordinary.

And in my remarks this afternoon, I would like to consider this progress; how it can be consolidated and built upon through the development of robust legal and judicial systems and institutions, and a culture underpinned by the rule of law.

The Asian Century

If the 20th century can be said to have been to some degree the West’s, then this century is most definitely Asia’s.

Asia has already been identified as the ‘super growth sector’ of the world economy. China is fast becoming the next global super-power. India – the next leg of my tour – is an international hub of industry and technology.

And Vietnam is making huge strides in the same direction, with an increasingly firm anchor in the global economic market. It now has one of Asia’s fastest developing economies, and has set its sights on joining what it calls the ‘modern and industrialised countries’ within the next 12 years.

Foreign investment is pouring in – hard evidence of the fact that other countries have firm faith in Vietnam’s future. Indeed, the UK is now one of the largest European investors in Vietnam, having agreed deals worth close to US$6.5 billion earlier this year with UK companies such as BP, International Power, and others. Meanwhile, it is easy to see why so many foreign visitors are attracted to this beautiful country.

These are remarkable achievements. So it is neither surprising nor ill-deserved that Vietnam was invited to become a member of the World Trade Organisation in January last year.

At the same time as we are seeing economic advances, we are beginning to see the lives of Vietnamese people rapidly changing for the better. Vietnam’s progress against the Millennium Development Goals is unrivalled. It has led the rest of the world in reducing poverty, having cut the proportion of poor people from nearly 60% to 16% in little over a decade. But I know that your government is far from complacent and is determined to continue this progress.

Vietnam has made a dramatic entry onto the international stage, and its growing status as an economic force is now universally acknowledged.

Being part of a global community has many upsides, but it also has downsides. Difficulties in the world economy impact here as they do everywhere else. So this has been a challenging year for Vietnam’s economy – as it has for the UK’s.

Importance of the rule of law

Something which really came home to me from my experiences as Foreign Secretary is that the health and wealth of a nation – and its ability to cope in times of strain – is determined as much by the strength of its institutions and the commitment of its government and people to the rule of law, as by its natural resources, its climate, or its geography.

The rule of law is not just a set of regulations enshrined in statute or the common law, which bind the citizens of a state. It is a way of organising society on the basis of equality under the law, with everyone subject and entitled to the same benefit of the law. It is a set of common values around which a country can unite.

I doubt whether this civilising influence has been better expressed than by Aristotle – one of the great thinkers of our Western tradition – nearly two and a half thousand years ago:

‘For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all …’ (Politics, Book One, Part II).

The rule of law can bring considerable benefits to countries like Vietnam, across the whole range of human activity. It makes government action clearer and more predictable. It creates an environment conducive to investment, trade and international cooperation. It brings fair and equal competition. And it enables people to go about their lives in full knowledge of their rights and responsibilities.

But perhaps the best evidence of its worth is the fact that the countries which have seen long-term economic, social and political stability are those which have remained true to the letter and spirit of the rule of law.

In short, it is instrumental to a nation’s domestic well-being and international standing.

But I’m not suggesting that it requires such a utilitarian justification alone. As Amartya Sen has emphasised, we should:

‘value the emergence and consolidation of a successful legal and judicial system as a valuable part of the process of development itself – not just for the way it may aid economic or political … development.’

We should not, therefore, disregard the importance of the rule of law in its own right, just as we should never forget the considerable material and social benefits that can derive from it.


I say all of this because of its great importance, not because I believe it will come as news to any of you. The government of Vietnam recognises the worthy objectives that can derive from developing a robust legal system.

Resolution 48 of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Vietnam sets out in terms:

‘the effectiveness of the law in contributing to good social management, maintaining political stability, developing the national economy, international integration, building a clean and strong state, implementing the human and democratic rights and freedoms of the citizen, and making Vietnam a modern, industrialised country by 2020.’

These are good intentions.

In Britain we have a proverb which says, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the tasting’. It is how the rule of law is manifest, and how it is experienced by citizens, which determines the success or failure of all good intentions. And in Vietnam, people at home, as well as investors and governments abroad need to ‘taste’ the progress which Vietnam is making.

Vietnam needs now to make sure that the advancement of ‘human and democratic rights’ and ‘freedoms of the citizen’ marches forward at the same pace as the ‘national economy’ and ‘international integration’.

The Vietnamese government is working to strengthen the rule of law as the foundation of a strong legal system, and to address some of the issues which can undermine public and international confidence in the country.

The centrepiece of this reform – Resolutions 48 and 49 – are your Ministry of Justice’s strong mandate for change: completely to overhaul and modernise the Vietnamese legal and judicial systems.

When I was preparing for this visit, I came across an old Vietnamese proverb, ‘in muddy water a stork grows fat’. The lesson, as I interpreted it, being that when the water is muddied, when there is no transparency, there is scope for self interest and corruption to seep in.

What struck me about it was its relevance and application today. Full effect can only be given to the rule of law by transparent public administration and institutions.

The Vietnamese government has recognised the importance of this – as can be seen in the stand it has taken to tackle corruption, in the publication of commercial case law, and in the development of a new access to information law.

But what ultimately matters is that the good intentions of the Vietnamese government translate into concrete changes. As with the rule of law, it is only through the manifestation of these principles that their benefits can be enjoyed.

Bilateral cooperation

All of this shows a growing commitment to strengthening Vietnam’s position within the global community and to building new ties between the east and the west.

One of the purposes of my visit this week is to help foster greater UK-Vietnamese cooperation. A wide process of bilateral cooperation has also begun, backed fully by our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. My visit, as well as progressing specific Ministry of Justice issues, is part of that process. It has been a pleasure to visit Vietnam this week and to see for myself some of its fruits.

In a world where borders should not be barriers and distance should be no hindrance to business, there is an ever growing need for nations to work constructively together to find solutions to some of the problems globalisation creates.

The greater movement of people and money around the globe means that nations must work together to ensure their citizens are protected and that laws can be enforced.

Later this week we will be agreeing a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation in the legal and judicial area and we will sign a Prisoner Transfer Agreement to allow prisoners to serve the remaining part of their sentences in their home countries. Officials from both countries will also be meeting in the near future to finalise a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, which will further strengthen UK-Vietnam police cooperation.

Both in terms of formal memoranda of understanding and informal information sharing, we are working together to tackle some of the new and increasingly complex crimes we face.

But cooperation extends far beyond the field of criminal justice. Our Department for International Development is working to help the Vietnamese government achieve its goals in reducing poverty and improving the lot of all Vietnamese people.

Governments can cooperate. Officials can meet and exchange good ideas. But the bond that can develop between individuals who live and study in a foreign country can often be where lasting relationships form.

And so we continue to build cultural ties and links in the field of education. The British Council is now well established in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. And the Chevening scholars and alumni here today are testament to the success of a programme which enables young people to study in the UK and gain skills to benefit their own country.


Ladies and gentlemen, we are standing on the cusp of Asia’s century – a century that Vietnam and you, as its future leaders, will play an enormous part in shaping.

It can be tempting to regard the rule of law as a dusty, academic abstraction, secondary to the more concrete goals of economic and social development. But as I’ve tried to demonstrate this afternoon, this is anything but the case.

To develop and sustain its economic growth and to become a fully fledged and functioning member of the global community, Vietnam’s domestic situation must be strong and stable. It is a commitment to the rule of law that will create the conditions at home to extend your influence abroad.

Forty years ago there was precious little hope of peace, let alone prosperity, for the Vietnamese people. Forty years later, with peace firmly established, the question is not as to the possibility of prosperity, only to its degree. For any nation worthy of being called modern, prosperity must be measured in social richness as much as economic wealth.

I hope that over the next forty years Vietnam can define its place in the world as a progressive force for social change as well as economic advance, on the basis of embracing the rule of law and respecting human rights.

Earlier I quoted from one of our greatest Western philosophers; in conclusion, let me quote one of the teachers from Asian ancient history.

To the question, ‘Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?’, Confucius replied, ‘It is the word “shu” – reciprocity. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.’ [Doctrine of the Mean, 13.3]

Whether your tradition is eastern or western, ancient or modern, ‘shu’ is an important principle for us all. The rule of law can give effect to it and make it the foundation of a peaceful, prosperous and just society.

Thank you.

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