Articles - October 2017

Interview with the Ambassador of Vietnam to the United States Pham Quang Vinh


It’s been 42 years since the last American helicopters lifted off from Saigon’s rooftops, leaving behind a war that killed 58,000 U.S. military and as many as two million Vietnamese military and civilians. Twenty years later, the U.S. established diplomatic relations with the government in Hanoi. And only a year ago, thousands of Vietnamese enthusiastically greeted the motorcade of then President Barack Obama on the streets of the former Saigon, now, Ho Chi Minh City. In the years since, what the Vietnamese call The American War, which followed nearly a century of French colonial rule and Japanese occupation, the 92 million citizens have fiercely worked to assert their independence and build a modern economy. Vietnam's six percent economic growth rate is among the fastest in Asia.

Its cities are full of building projects, shopping malls, and in Ho Chi Minh City, a subway system is under construction. But the landscape of Southeast Asia remains full of tension, especially in the competing claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and China, over the waters and small islands of the South China Sea.

Some of that development and growing prosperity will be on display in the first week of November when officials and leaders from 23 countries and territories gather in Vietnam for the annual meeting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group.

Diplomatic Connections met with Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh for an exclusive interview. The career diplomat has represented his country in Washington, D.C. since 2014.

Diplomatic Connections: Excellency, thank you for joining Diplomatic Connections for this interview.

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: Thank you very much.

Diplomatic Connections: In early November, for the second time in a decade, your country is going to host the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group. What are the host country’s goals for this meeting?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: First, thank you very much for coming to the embassy. APEC is very important to the region and to every participating member. It’s now a time of many changes, we try and share our goal with the representatives who are most engaged on how to reinvigorate the momentum for regional integration and economic development beneficial to all participants. The theme we focus on is how to nurture the dynamic advancement of the region concentrating on inclusiveness, regional integration, and benefits of prosperity for all. We have been working towards these unified goals with all of our colleagues from the beginning of this year. It is our hope that President Trump will be attending the summit, as we understand that it's been confirmed. Strategies and anticipated engagements within the region are expected to be announced during this time.

Diplomatic Connections: Did you say you have confirmation, or are you awaiting confirmation?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: If you remember earlier this year when Vice President Pence was in Indonesia, he announced the decision and intention of the president to go to both Vietnam as well as the surrounding region while at the APEC summit. Additionally, we have been in contact with the administration and believe it will happen. [At the time of this interview September 20, 2017; on September 29, the White House announced President Donald J. Trump and First Lady Melania Trump will travel to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Hawaii from November 3-14, 2017. The President will participate in a series of bilateral, multilateral, and cultural engagements—including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit).

Diplomatic Connections: Now your president has cited the official goal as creating a new dynamism and fostering a shared future. To the fellow who is simply selling motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City, what does that mean?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: It would mean more opportunities for small and medium sized businesses in the region. APEC will create a favorable environment for networking the SMEs and businesses, also including and promoting start-ups. Young people are very much in love of that idea. Certainly, more foreign investment will go to Vietnam and other partners as a result. And so, regular people will see the benefits of trade and interaction, not just at the macro level, but rather, in day-to-day business.

Diplomatic Connections: Talking about trade, when this meeting was originally planned, it was with the expectation that twelve Pacific nations would be moving to complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The United States, led by the Trump administration, has now withdrawn from that. How much of this is a setback particularly for Vietnam’s economic development plans?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: We will see this from a number of elements: To begin, I'd like to say that we have been working so hard to achieve the TPP triumph. So, it is time where we need something to reengage U.S. entry and economic activities with the Asia-Pacific, and I think the administration is now thinking of how best to do it. We'd like to combine its national interests together with regional trade economic activities. Vietnam supports sustainable engagement by the U.S., strategically and economically, in the region. Vietnam will continue both ways: our national reform to attract more businesses and also our investment from other countries including the U.S. We have, myself included, made collective efforts towards this and have been working very hard. We've joined the business community in the U.S. discussing how we can collaborate together. I think a number of positive elements continue to be considered by the business community; for example, the business environment related to IT, agriculture, and other industries. As well, there are other regional efforts related to trade and economic integration, and we continue to give this attention. Therefore, up for consideration here is every possible avenue for enhancing the environment of business and economic integration and its continuation. We need to have the U.S. in that regional effort with us.

Diplomatic Connections: You said the United States and this administration are developing plans for economic re-engagement with Asia. Have you seen any specific plans yet?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: We have seen when they are working with other countries as well as Vietnam; we can sustain and promote the momentum of trade relations bilaterally, and they have been committed to going to regional forums including APEC. This will be an issue at least on that topic. Thus, engaging the U.S. economically and strategically on bilateral and multilateral places will be imperative. And I see the aspiration for the new administration on this front also.

Diplomatic Connections: Now there’s some discussion, particularly from Japan, about moving ahead on TPP-11 without the United States. Is your government enthusiastic about this idea?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: The engagement of the U.S. with regional Asia-Pacific will be very important. Now the U.S. has been withdrawing from the TPP. How we continue to engage the U.S. will be significant. I think many countries in the region maintain talks with the U.S. to enhance their cooperation within the region. At the same time, the results of the TPP, through nearly 10 years of negotiations and hard work, can serve as a template for future trade agreements including bilateral or regional. This is important to sustain and to progressively see good developments from the TPP. The TPP-11 is a way to keep the TPP alive. It is one avenue, but to simultaneously reengage the U.S. bilaterally and regionally is crucial.

Diplomatic Connections: . . . because your country had the most to gain in terms of trade from the TPP?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: People can think of gains with pro and cons. In order to make achievements as well as be competitive with other TPP participants, we have made great commitments out of difficulties and hardship. Much of which we hope to accomplish must be carried out through reforms. Therefore, in order to gain, we must sacrifice as well, so I think that of TPP in one way; while on the other hand, it is balanced and beneficial to all.

Diplomatic Connections: You talked about the dynamic changes that are going on in Asia, there are also political on the security front. Do you think that discussions of APEC can lead to any easing of the territorial disputes that are going on in the South China Sea?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: I think the issue of the South China Sea, or what Vietnam calls the Eastern Sea, is one of the concerns related to both economic and security matters in the Asian-Pacific area. It has been discussed in many regional forums including in ASEAN. How people approach this topic, within the context of an economic forum, will be for the participants to decide. But, I think the region needs to be stable and secure so that economic activities can boom. Also, the South China Sea is a sea-lane that relates to important commercial activities; thus, security and stability will be paramount. And here we need to emphasize the rule of law as well.

Diplomatic Connections: How would you characterize relations at this moment between your country and China particularly over the issue of who has the rights to exploit mineral development in the Spratly Islands?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: We have a longstanding tradition of a good relationship with China. Our trade relations have been developing very fast. China is a big country and a source of cooperation not only for Vietnam, but also for other nations as well. Therefore, the policy of Vietnam is to deepen the good relationship with China already upheld. On the issue of the Eastern Sea or the South China Sea, we have differences related to these subjects. We have been in communication with the Chinese side, and there has been a common understanding shared by the leadership of the two countries on how to cultivate calm in the South China Sea situation, settle the differences and disputes, and also place ourselves under rule of law and international law including UNCLOS. (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the U.S. has not ratified.) Concurrently, we think that maritime security, including freedom of navigation, is essential, not only for claimant states, but also for all nations in the region and in the world. Thus, we need to work together bilaterally, and in the regional forums and frameworks to ensure that this is a sea of peace and security. We intend to do everything we can do to preserve peace, maritime security, and freedom of navigation at sea while also ensuring that differences and disputes can be by peaceful means in accordance with international law including UNCLOS.

Diplomatic Connections: Because your General Secretary called for unity among the nations of the Southeast, Association of the Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, are you getting the kind of immunity you want out of ASEAN on this issue?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: This year is very unique. It’s the 50th anniversary of the founding of ASEAN. If you research the history of ASEAN, you will see the evolution of it to the present time and discover that it's one of the most successful regional organizations today. Indeed, unity and consensus play a very important role in the process of progress within ASEAN. But it’s also a fact that within ASEAN, sensitive and/or difficult issues arise, and there certainly can be different views. Thus, consensus on issues of unity also means that we tackle the differences so that we can move forward successfully. In this context, engaging in dialogue in ASEAN about the differences and reaching agreement later is also part of the consensus process. I used to serve as Vietnam’s ASEAN representative, and I’ve been doing much of this. So, creating an environment where countries can align their priorities and national positions, in hopes of developing a regional position, is very important. It’s not simply having consensus, but also truly staying engaged in a building consensus; this is critical. Therefore, ASEAN is good, and I think it will continue to develop.

Diplomatic Connections: Are you satisfied with the response of the United States and the Trump administration to developments in the East Sea, South China Sea?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: I believe so, it has been reaffirmed by the different administrations, including the new administration, that they consider maritime security and freedom of navigation in the South China or Eastern Sea, critical not only to the interests of the U.S. but for other countries as well. Also, respect of international law, the rule of law, including UNCLOS, will be very important. Thus, we share this one and countries need to work together and refrain from creating further tension in the region; this is fundamental. I think that all the key principles and elements have been reaffirmed by the new administration, and it is shared not only by Vietnam, but also by countries of the region including ASEAN countries.

Diplomatic Connections: Now, you talked earlier about your country making considerable domestic reforms, particularly in connection with TPP. Are you going ahead even without an American TPP with the legislation setting up independent trade unions?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: The reform in Vietnam is not only because of the TPP; it’s from the heart of our development and national building. Vietnam will continue its national package reform including in the economic, social and political areas. For example, the National Assembly of Vietnam has been on many occasions reviewing laws to further promote and ensure the rights and welfare of the citizens and the people. Apart from the TPP, we have many others, what we refer to as, new generation FTAs including our FTA with the EU or the Republic of Korea. Like the TPP, those FTAs require high standards in areas like the economy and in trade-relations, including also on labor. We continue to work to for the best benefit of our workers.

Diplomatic Connections: Now some of the international non-governmental organizations, the NGOs, have complained that without the United States involved in TPP, there’s less American pressure on your government to deal with certain domestic political and human rights issues. There’s been an increase in arrests of bloggers and other dissidents. What is your response to that?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: We may have differences in the political and social systems and in our perception of how democracy and freedom will be, but with or without the TPP, we continue our reforms to the best benefit and welfare of our citizens and people. Even before the TPP, we already had a bilateral dialogue on human rights with the U.S. and several other countries like the EU or Australia. That dialogue will be continued, we may have differences, but we can talk and have dialogue with each other.

Diplomatic Connections: At this particular moment we are doing this interview, perhaps more Americans than usual are paying more attention to your country because of the PBS documentary series on, what we call the Vietnam War, and what you call the American War. There was some discussion that these documentaries would be translated into Vietnamese and live-streamed into Vietnam. Do you see that happening?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: Episode one is just starting, so we need to wait a little bit to see the whole story created by the film. The Vietnam War or the American War, as we call it, has a long history, and there are many ways of thinking about it. But one thing we must say to you is that from our perspective, it is a war that was waged upon us, and we have to stand up to that. Also, important, is after the war, we have a process of reconciliation and working hard together to transform ourselves from former foes to friends. It’s a remarkable process of progress whereas we can work together and have now become comprehensive partners. And I want to recall Vietnam’s policies of “set aside the past and work on the future” ad we worked together for the normalization of the relationship . At the same time, our two countries have been cooperating very closely on the war legacy issues, including the MIAs, as one example, or the U.S. has been helping us in efforts for demining, UXOs and Agent Orange. Let’s see the full story.

Diplomatic Connections: Because this question we’ve seen here, despite the intention and best hopes of the filmmakers, it has not brought reconciliation to the United States. If anything, it has created more argument in the United States about our war. You were a child during the war, and your family had to flee the bombing of Hanoi, during some of the most intense bombing. How has that experience, that you shared with your generation, how has that affected your perspective of your country’s future and how it deals with the world?

Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh: At the time of the war, I was in the northern part of the country—the most frequent experience in my memory was the bombing and the jets roaring in the sky. As a kid, 7-10 years old, it was really a shock to a young child. We had to evacuate from Hanoi with my parents to provinces up north about 150 kilometers away, and every time we went to school, and heard a siren warning us that airplanes would be coming and bombs might be dropped, we had to go into the shelter, it was really a difficult experience. I came back to Hanoi during the end of 1960s when there was a temporary ceasing of the bombing. We had to be evacuated again before 1972 when they bombed Hanoi. It was a few days before, maybe a week or so, prior to the signing of the Paris Agreement. It’s a real experience. But at the same time, I will share with you my personal experience: My first trip abroad, as a Vietnamese young diplomat, was back in 1983 when I was with the delegation going to the UN General Assembly in New York. My first assignment abroad was in New York as well. Thus, I saw not only the war, during the fiercest of times, but also people after the war. Ordinary people have a good heart for people of other countries, and then when they know Vietnam, they love Vietnam. Furthermore, I witnessed, or saw some experiences, much like the Vietnam Vets, where people were bridging the gap between the two nations, pioneering in normalization. And many veterans have gone back to Vietnam to meet their former enemies; they shake hands. I think when things changed and when the war was ended, then it’s a time of great courage for the citizens of both our nations, working together for normalization and reconciliation. So, it’s real experience.

Diplomatic Connections: Excellency, thank for joining this interview with Diplomatic Connections.


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