Looking back on the 25-year progress of Vietnam-US relations, there have been many assessments and opinions on how they have “surpassed expectations”, or as the US President Donald Trump stated: “the development of the partnership between the two countries has been a singular feat”. 

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Vietnamese Ambassador to the US, Pham Quang Vinh

Under close inspection, over the past 25 years, Vietnam - US relations have made great strides in every aspect. In politics - diplomacy, the relationship between the two countries has tightened progressively with frequent high-level visits, and comprehensive cooperation on mutual concerns that involve international and regional issues, such as ASEAN, South China Sea, climate change, global disease prevention, and peace-keeping.

On the matter of national security, the past 25 years have seen great steps, in line with the interests of both nations.  In 2011, two sides have had a memorandum on defense collaboration, and it was raised to a statement of the collaborative vision of defense between two countries in 2015. At present, the two countries have been participating in a 3-year defense collaborative action program (2018-2021), in which the focus is on various domains including rescue coordination, humanitarian aid, military medicine, and participation in the UN’s Department of Peace Operations, etc.

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Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh meets Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver (left)

Regarding culture and education, we can see the US’s support for Vietnam with a number of aid projects focused on medicine, and fighting climate change and rising sea level. Vietnam has cooperated with America in education, tourism, and citizen exchange. If we talk statistics, there are almost 30,000 Vietnamese students currently studying in the US, putting Vietnam on the top tier of the SEA sector. On the American side, there are around a million tourists coming to Vietnam each year. The US has also set up a university in Vietnam (Fulbright University Vietnam).

As for the economy and trade, it has been generating mutual benefits, thus making it the backbone of the relationship between Vietnam and the US throughout the past 25 years. The two-way trade valued at only 500 million USD in 1994, when the US lifted the sanctions on Vietnam, is now worth over 75 billion USD, increasing by more than 150 times. I remember at the end of 2014 when I went to the US to accept my post as ambassador, at that point, the two-way trade was valued at 36 billion USD. I was worried about whether or not there were any opportunities for further  growth between the countries. Then at the end of my term, the trade figures have reached almost 60 billion USD, an incredible growth within only 3 years. It is to say that there is much space for the two countries to grow even more.

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Vietnamese Ambassador to the US Pham Quang Vinh visited the US Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, California

During the 25 year period with many imprints in the bilateral relationship, what memories have left a special mark on you, Ambassador?

I can think of two remarkable instances. When speaking of Vietnam - US relations, it is impossible not to mention the historic visit of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to the United State  in July 2015, after 40 years of ending the Vietnam War and exactly on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of our diplomatic relationship. The preparation for the visit of the General Secretary also had many problems. For example, in the US reception principle, the head of the party is not in the state powers, therefore it was difficult to decide how to properly welcome  the General Secretary of Vietnam. In the end, the US side made a decision to  overcome any technical or reception barriers. The US government welcomed the General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong with the highest ceremony of President Obama’s Administration. Anyone following Vietnam - US relations was surprised at the talk and press meetings of the two leaders which  lasted  almost 95 minutes (originally expected  to be 45 minutes). The two sides had approved the Joint Statement on the Vision of Vietnam - US Relations.

The second instance that made a great impression on me is a personal story when I spent two terms in New York (1987-1990) and (1996-1999). Especially in 1987-1990, when the US had not yet lifted the embargo and established a diplomatic relationship with Vietnam. 

The diplomatic officials of the Vietnamese delegation to the United Nation were probably the only diplomatic officials of Vietnam in the US at that time, and we had a travel restriction - only allowed to travel within 25 miles. That story I got as the first experience when I became an ambassador. It made a lot of sense in retrospection. From the moment that the hostile relation limited even the basic rights of free movement to the moment when I could freely participate in all aspects of the Vietnam - US relationship. It was, obviously, a huge, and astonishing  change.

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When mentioning Vietnam - US relations, we cannot omit the role of citizen diplomacy. How will the Citizen Diplomacy continue to contribute to the in Vietnam - US relation in the future and how should it be promoted?

Citizen diplomacy is perhaps the basis for Vietnam - US relations all throughout history including ups and downs, difficult times of war and the age of development. If we recall back to wartimes, there were many protests by allies opposing the Vietnam War. After that, when the war ended but the two nations still didn’t have any relationship, it was citizen diplomacy that made the first steps in building the first connections, and faith as well as understanding between the two countries. It was a great push that helped the two countries to become closer.

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It can be said that the first bridge was by built veterans of both countries. From the early years of 1980’s, there were American vets who returned to Vietnam, not only to visit the old battlefield but also to share, to sympathize, and to heal their wounds caused by the war, in a desire, together with Vietnam, to put an end to our painful past. A lot of American politicians with connections to the Vietnam War, when they returned, had made strong political decisions which helped to accelerate the normalization process. Citizen diplomacy looks very different in these recent years because it has been building by a new generation. There are friends who seek out Vietnam because they find friendly Vietnamese people, beautiful landscape, and delicious foods. Or for American congressmen who concern themselves with Asia all think of Vietnam in the forefront of their mind. So we can see that Vietnam’s role currently has changed including innovations, assimilation, and participation  in regional and international operations. So, the strategists in American Congress or American university academics all want to learn about Vietnam.

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Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh meets US Senator Jim Webb

Obviously, citizen diplomacy is no longer the story of the previous generation, it is now the journey of many generations, being the foundation of many different classes in society. In the time of war, American citizens were the forces in supporting the Vietnamese people, opposing a senseless  war, forming  movements that opposed the war within the United State of America and around the world. When the war ended, the two countries remained adversaries, they were the connection that helped enhance mutual understanding and trust so that the relationship could soon be normalized. When the two countries have achieved normalization, the foundation of citizen diplomacy quickly expanded including policymakers, academic researchers, entrepreneurs, and tourists, etc.

The US is approaching a new election. Every presidential term, we observe certain adjustments to American foreign diplomacy in general, and the Vietnam - US relations in particular. As someone with experience in the momentous occasion of power transfer in America, what impact do you think this election will have on Vietnam - US relations in the future?

Back in November 2016, not only Vietnam but also America and the world were surprised at President Donald  Trump’s victory. At that point, many other nations were still waiting to find out more about this president, evaluating his policies and strategies in the region. Meanwhile, in Vietnam’s foreign policy, neighboring countries and big nations are partners of the first priority, therefore Vietnam always needed to maintain a connection regardless of who became the US president. The new president was originally a businessman with little experience in politics, thus Vietnam initiated the call to emphasize on Vietnam - US relations’ mutual benefits and the tendency for growth. 

The phone conference on December 14th 2016 was one of the first tele-conferences in the history of Vietnam - US relations to congratulate and connect with a president-elect. Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc was one of the first leaders in the world to confer on the phone with President-Elect Donald Trump. It created great momentum for us to continue maintaining the blossoming relationship, generate awareness, and interpersonally connect leaders. Immediately after, in May 2017, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc made a visit to the US. As for President Trump, he has thus far been to Vietnam twice...

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We reminisce to be able to see that the Vietnam - US relationship from 1995 till now has been all great steps and increasingly expanding. We have the support of both the Republicans and the Democrats. Vietnam - US relations have bipartisan support, so no matter who becomes the president, their interest in this relationship cannot change for two reasons: First is that every US president has valued their connections in Asia-Pacific and the US always has interests in the region. In its relationship with Vietnam, the US has always considered Vietnam to be the key factor in the region. Secondly, is that the bilateral relationship between Vietnam and the US to date has not run into any severe conflict, causing any obstacle. 

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Ambassador Pham Quang Vinh meets Former US Senator John Mccain

Looking back over the past 25 years, what we need to accomplish is multiplying and improving our mutual cooperating base, including politics, diplomacy, economic, national defense and security as well as education, healthcare, technology, people’s exchange. We must inherit the progress while further expand cooperative areas at bilateral, regional and international level. The innovative, developing and integrated Vietnam has and has been creating opportunities and capacities to further enhance us foreign affair relationship, including strengthening Vietnam-US relationship in terms of comprehensiveness and strategy. It is for those reasons that I believe, regardless of who becomes president, Vietnam - US relations will continue and prosper.