U.S. Ambassador confirms deepening partnership with Vietnam under Trump administration 

By VnExpress   June 25, 2017 | 08:12 pm PT
'I'm a little biased, but I think Vietnam is very important. As America's representative here, I think it's a country that matters a great deal.'

How do you think Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc's visit to the United States went?

First of all, he was the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the new administration, go to the Oval Office and meet our new president and senior members of the cabinet. He came out with a very clear message, both in Washington and when he met with investors in New York: Vietnam is open for business. So yes, I think it was a really successful visit. It was well organized, well prepared, the substantive works were done extremely well and in advance, and my feeling is congratulations. It was very well done.

What is Vietnam's current position in the region, with Mr. Phuc being the first leader in ASEAN to visit the United States under the new administration?

I'm a little biased, but I think Vietnam is very important. As America's representative here, I think it's a country that matters a great deal. If you look around Southeast Asia, and look at the nations playing a significant role strategically in Southeast Asia, it's pretty obvious that Vietnam's playing a very important role.The fact that Prime Minister Phuc was the first leader to go to Washington indicates proactive diplomacy on the part of Vietnam. I would say Vietnam's been playing a very important role in ASEAN in recent years and I expect that very important role to continue.


U.S. ambassador Ted Osius. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy

How was Prime Minister Phuc's visit different to General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong's visit in 2015?

Mr Trong's visit to Washington in 2015 was an historic and important event. It was the first time ever that a general secretary of the Communist Party had visited the Oval Office and met with our president. General Secretary Trong and President Obama issued a joint vision statement at that time, and it was substantive. It indicated the areas where we wanted to continue to deepen our partnership and develop collaborations, such as security, working together to preserve regional peace and the environment, an issues such as health, educational exchanges and trade.

Those are the same elements that were emphasized by Prime Minister Phuc and President Trump in their joint statement at the end of May. They're also the same elements that were identified as important for collaboration, first by President Truong Tan Sang when we established a comprehensive partnership in 2013, again by the general secretary in 2015, and again by the prime minister when he visited President Trump.

If you look at all of these milestones, there's more continuity than change, such as the deepening of our commitment and the different examples of how we're working together in the same areas that we committed to work in together in 2013. We're working together in even more areas in 2017, so these are important landmarks. Each of these visits has been very important in moving the relationship forward. We're working within the framework of a comprehensive partnership, the nine pillars of which were laid out more than four years ago.

Will President Trump be on an official bilateral visit to Vietnam when he comes here for the APEC Summit in November?

In the joint statement, President Trump welcomed Vietnam's invitation to attend the APEC Summit. It is possible to have a bilateral and a multilateral component, such as the case at the APEC Summit, on the same visit. I think the really significant thing is that the president committed to come to Vietnam during his his first year in office, and I would expect there to be both multilateral and bilateral elements to that visit.

How has the support from the Obama administration for Vietnam's maritime security changed under the new administration?

When President Obama visited last year, he announced the full lifting of the lethal weapons ban, and as a result of that change in U.S. policy, we were able to transfer a cutter to Vietnam for use by Vietnam's Coast Guard. That transfer occurred in May and that ship will arrive in a few months. We were also able to transfer a group of six Metal Shark boats for Vietnam Coast Guard Region 2. Those boats can be used for law enforcement and coastal patrols. Because they're very fast, they can also be used to intercept illegal ships or go out and save lives at sea.

What I was able to transfer was the first tranche of six ships. We envisioned four tranches, one group of six for each of the four coast guard regions. In every case, we not only transfer the boats but also provide training on their use and maintenance. We have built mainland facilities so that the ships will continue to be useful to the coast guards for many years to come. The amount of time they spend out of water will be minimal, and the amount of time that they're used on the water to accomplish what Vietnam wants to accomplish will be maximum.

I was very proud to not only transfer the boats, but to see the maintenance facility and the training facility all come together so that these can become very useful assets for Vietnam's coast guards.

Does this mean President Trump's is continuing this support?

Yes, it does. Our policy with regard to this part of the world has much more continuity than change in it. We're still committed to freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. We're still committed to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and its preservation and implementation in this part of the world. We remain committed to our partners having the capabilities to help preserve that freedom of navigation and overflight, and in our own case, we continue to be committed to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, including throughout the South China Sea, or Bien Dong (East Sea) as you call it. That interest remains very much the same.

What else will President Trump's administration do to implement our agreement now the lethal weapons ban has been lifted?

That will depend on what Vietnam asks for. It's really up to Vietnam to determine what are in its interests to obtain from the U.S., what capabilities we can provide them and what capabilities they might turn to other countries to provide. I feel certain that Vietnam will continue to receive support from other countries in the region such as Japan and South Korea, in addition to the United States. And that's great, because our policy is we support a strong, prosperous, independent Vietnam. That doesn't mean a Vietnam that's dependent only on us, but an independent Vietnam that determines what its security needs are and addresses them. And we're proud to be one of Vietnam's partners in addressing those needs.

What is the U.S. policy on China's construction of military facilities in the Spratly Islands?

Secretary Tillerson has been very clear that the island building, the island construction and the militarization of outposts in Bien Dong are neither in the interests of peace in the region nor in the interests of international stability, as a large part of the world's traffic passes through that region. We all have an interest in the Bien Dong region being stable, being a place where navigation is free and safe and no-one can be threatened or bullied, and everyone acts in accordance with international laws.

We have a vital interest in freedom of navigation. It's an interest that our nation has had for all of its 241 years, and we have defended freedom of navigation in many instances throughout our history. We are also very supportive of the diplomatic efforts that are under way to address this challenge. Vietnam and other countries are working on a code of conduct to govern how nations behave in the Bien Dong region. We support these diplomatic efforts and any efforts that strengthen the ability of nations to uphold the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, because it is crucial that there be agreed upon rules, and these widely agreed upon rules are laid out there in the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Our approach to this has three parts. One is effective diplomacy, another is adherence to international law, and the third is to make sure that our partners have the capability to know what's going on in the region and to deal with challenges as they arrive. And we're doing all of these and syncing up with the Vietnamese as we do so.

What would you say to people who say China is in fact trying to militarize the South China Sea?

As I mentioned, we continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. That has not changed. No matter what lines are drawn, we and other navies and coast guards in the region are continuing to operate freely in the region and all of us have an interest that those operations continue. All of us have an interest in making sure overflight is safe and is not challenged as before.

Can you tell us when the U.S. will make its next freedom of navigation patrol in the region?

I don't know. I expect them to continue on a regular basis, just as they did in the past.

President Trump has decided to put an end to the pivot towards Asia policy. The United States has not announced a new policy to replace it. What do you have to say about this?

I wouldn't attach too much attention to what we call it. The fact is we have fundamental interests at stake in the Asia-Pacific region. Ours is a democratic system and in the course of new leaders coming into office, policies often change. But our interests remain quite consistent in this region.

Our future is tied up in Asia, and Asia is where the middle class is growing very fast, where a huge amount of our economic engagements must occur if we're to stay a prosperous nation. There is also broad bipartisan support for our deepening engagement in Asia. During my time spent on Capitol Hill, it doesn't matter if I'm talking to Democrats or Republicans, they all believe that our future is tied up with the future of Asia. We're an Asian nation. Our interests are at stake here.

We have to continue to be deeply engaged in Asia, and it's very helpful for the United States to have deepening partnerships. We have more traditional alliance relationships in this region than anywhere else. We also have very important, powerful partnerships in this region that are beneficial to us and to our partners. And among those powerful partnerships is our partnership with Vietnam.

But that's not the only one. We have partnerships with India and Indonesia, and alliance relationships with Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea. We have many important relationships with Asian nations that we're going to keep strengthening and deepening in years to come.

Now the U.S. has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), will Vietnam and the U.S. pursue a bilateral free trade agreement?

When the prime minister visited, he and the president spoke about the importance of existing mechanisms, such as the Trade and Investment Framework Arrangement (TIFA). We have people from the U.S. trade representative's office here in Vietnam, and there are already ongoing discussions, which we call the TIFA talks.

Through those discussions we're able to address trade barriers that are still in the way of free and fair trade between our two nations. The emphasis right now is on making sure we eliminate those trade barriers and make sure that our trade is freer and fairer.

We haven't talked about a bilateral trade agreement yet, but that doesn't mean it's off the table.

We've also agreed to do what we can to address the trade deficit that now exists. Vietnam has a trade surplus with us that is not sustainable, and one of the ways to address that is for Vietnam to make more decisions to buy from the United States and make fewer purchases from other nations. That would help right the trade imbalance and that seems to be an effective way to go for now, as the other way to address the imbalance by cutting down those exports would be painful as it's been beneficial to Vietnam to be able to export to the U.S.

I would cite one in particular. There are many opportunities to obtain energy from the United States and I think it would be very beneficial for Vietnam to have a good energy mix, one that isn't too reliant on any one source. The United States is an exporter of natural gas, of wind technology and solar technology, which are clean energy technologies. The United States is prepared to be a good partner to Vietnam as it diversifies its sources of energy. Another opportunity is in the field of aviation, where Vietnam has made a number of purchases from the United States, and more purchases are possible. Vietnamese exports to the United States can continue as long as you make sure that the trade exchange is brought more into balance.

You mentioned that Vietnam needs to address the trade imbalance. Shouldn't both countries try to come up with a win-win situation?

I suggested energy because it's a win-win situation. You could get cleaner energy for Vietnam, and that means cleaner air in Vietnam's cities and better technology at a lower cost, and that can be done also while addressing the deficit. There are win-win solutions to this problem, you just have to be creative about addressing them.

We just had a visit from former Secretary of State John Kerry, who in his presentations to the government pointed out that the cost of renewable energy has come down. It used to be much more expensive to obtain solar energy or wind energy than it was to get energy from fossil fuels. That is no longer the case. The cost of renewable energies has come down. A lot of the technologies behind that come from the United States. They're world-class technologies that allow obtaining energy at a much lower cost and energies that are much cleaner than those obtained from fossil fuels. There's also a bridge source of energy which is natural gas. Vietnam has enormous natural gas reserves, but while those reserves are coming online, Vietnam could fill some of the gap by obtaining natural gas from the United States. We would encourage this and that's a win-win.

Interview by Viet Anh

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