July 2021 marks 26 years since diplomatic relations were established between Vietnam and the United States (July 1995-July 2021). This July 2021 also marks 6 years since the first official visit paid by a General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam to the U.S. at the invitation of a U.S. President. In July 2015, Mr. Bùi Thế Giang, who currently is Vice President of the Vietnam-U.S.A. Society and was then Director General for West Europe & North America Affairs of the Party External Relations Commission, was engaged in organizing the historic visit and himself accompanied General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng.

On the eve of the 4th National Convention of the Vietnam-U.S.A. Society, the Vietnam-U.S. Magazine is fortunate to have a meeting with Mr. Bùi Thế Giang to discuss these events.

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Vietnam's Vice Minister of Education and Training Nguyen Van Phuc signed the signing of the implementing agreement between the Peace Corps and the Ministry in Hanoi in July at a reception with US Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink

Reporter: 6 years ago saw General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng paying a visit to the U.S. What comes to your mind at this moment pertaining to the historic significance of the visit?

Vietnam-U.S.A. Society Vice President Bùi Thế Giang: This is a historic visit in the full sense of the word “historic,” and there are many accounts that reflect the important and memorable nature of the event. To make a complete list of those accounts right away after 6 years is not quite easy. Yet, let me briefly mention 4 things.

First, it was the first time when a top man of the United States invited a top man of a ruling communist party to pay an official visit to the United States. As far as I can recall it, on the very morning of July 6, 2015 when the charter flight with General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng aboard landed at Washington DC, Senator John McCain, then Chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement in which he was the first to officially call this “a historic visit.”

Second, the first official essential item of the visit was the formal talks at the Oval Office in the White House with the participation of not only the President but also Vice President Joe Biden and 3 Secretaries cum Cabinet members, i.e. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Trade Representative Michael Froman. This is not often the composition when the top man of the U.S. Administration holds talks with a foreign statesman.

Third, the joint statement. This is something very special! In the runners-up to the visit, the U.S. side suggested that perhaps there’d be no need for a joint statement, because only 2 years before, the two sides already issued a joint document in the form of a Presidential Statement. However, as has been known to all, General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s visit was marked not only by a joint statement in general sense but a highly majestic “Joint Vision Statement” that contained many “historic” points in terms of both substance and language. For instance, apart from its incorporation of an epitaph-like sentence that has been covered by all joint Vietnam-U.S. statements over the past years that “the two sides commit to respecting the United Nations Charter, international law, and each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and political systems,” this document consistently used words like “the two countries” and “both countries” instead of “the two leaders” in other normal joint statements. What does this tell us? It indirectly tells us that the U.S. recognizes the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam not only as the top man of the Communist Party of Vietnam or the Vietnamese political system, but the representative of the Vietnamese nation and the highest leader of Vietnam as a country. 

Another thing bearing historic significance was the fact that Vice President Joe Biden hosted the luncheon in honor of General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng. Different from the initial plan that had State Secretary John Kerry to host the luncheon, it was Vice President Joe Biden who hosted it after the offficial talks concluded. And I believe this uplifted hosting level was not at all coincidental. In the diplomatic world, there’s no such a coincidence. And throughout the Biden luncheon, the Vice President was seen elegant, cordial, delicate and thoughtful.

You have mentioned the luncheon. All those who followed General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s visit still remember Vice President Joe Biden’s recitation of the Tale of Kiều, commenting that this alone testifies to the U.S. side’s painstaking efforts to study the Vietnamese culture. Do you agree with this observation?

In July 2015, after General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s visit, I was asked a more or less the same question by quite a few. And my very personal answer was roughly, “I do not think Mr. Biden is well-versed about the tale of Kiều, but his recitation shows that the U.S. Administration has advisors with excellent understanding and goodwill, and also leaders with political willpower, goodwill and vision to accept advisors’ recommendations.” Today, let me add this: This applies not only to Mr. Joe Biden. This applies to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and their advisors as well.

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On July 10, 2015, Ambassador Bui The Giang translated for General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and former President Bill Clinton in New York

 

In November 2000, when U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam, he recited the Tale of Kiều during the banquet hosted by then President Trần Đức Lương. And when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Vietnam in May 2016, he also recited the Tale of Kiều.

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The official logo will be used by Vietnam and the US in events marking 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries this year

Exactly 6 years ago, the Communist Party of Vietnam’s top man paid a visit to the U.S. and welcomed heartily by American leaders and people, including then Vice President Joe Biden. What do you think about a coming visit to Vietnam by incumbent President Joe Biden?

A very interesting question. Regarding it, I have several things in mind.

Firstly, the Vietnam-U.S. relations have recorded great strides over the past years. Ms. Hillary Clinton once said, “the U.S. and Vietnam are an example for the world about two former enemies becoming friends and partners.” General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng said a similar sentence when he was in Washington DC.

I also remember that on January 30, 2021 our leaders, including then Party General Secretary and State President Nguyễn Phú Trọng, sent a congratulatory message to Mr. Joe Biden following the latter’s inauguration. The message included an invitation for President Joe Biden to visit Vietnam. Among congratulatory messages sent over to President Joe Biden by many world leaders, very few were with such an invitation, I guess. Then, on April 15, 2021, at his meeting with U.S Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink for the latter to pay a farewell call, General Secretary Trọng repeated the invitation. So, the official invitation for President Biden has been extended and remained open.

Secondly, on February 5, 2021, just a fortnight after Mr. Joe Biden’s inauguration, there was a phone talk between then Party Politburo member, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Phạm Bình Minh and U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken. The diplomats’ talk was naturally on issues of state importance. But after the talk, Mr. Antony wrote two short but very cute sentences on his tweeter. The first was, “Pleasant first conversation with Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Phạm Bình Minh on our commitment to peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” The second conluding sentence was so cute, “I hope our next conversation is over a delicious bowl of phở in Hanoi!” My feelings were the two sentences represent a close and warm relationship between individual leaders of our two countries, beyond protocols and conventional diplomatic exchanges.

And thirdly, would Mr. Biden visit Vietnam? To be sincere, I have high hopes for such a visit. And not sure if I can say on their behalf, but I think many on both sides also have high hopes for such a visit.


The Vietnam-U.S. relations have over the past more than 2 decades witnessed great strides, as you have just mentioned. From this year’s perspective, in view of the 26-year path of development, how would you like to describe those relations in concrete terms?

The words “great strides” are in my view relatively sufficient for a de ion. However, if it’s necessary to be a bit more concrete, especially in narrating the advances made in the last 26 years, I’d like to refer to the words “Comprehensive Partnership” in describing the Vietnam-U.S. ties. What does “Comprehensive Partnership” imply? It implies that there’s no field of operation where partnership is impossible between our two countries. And that is a concrete manifestation of not only the length of the advances but also the depth of the two countries’ relations. Whoever having followed the Vietnam-U.S. relationship would clearly realize this, particularly when looking back at the 9 areas in the relationship that have been covered by all joint statements announced since July 2013, which I wish to refrain from repeating now. Instead, let me simply emphasize our two countries’ military-to-military ties. And I want to do this in my two personal capacities: an individual once part of the country’s diplomatic service, and a war veteran once a combat soldier fighting the U.S.

At the macro level, the Vietnamese Ministry of National Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense signed in 2011 an MOU on advancing their bilateral defense relations. Then, in June 2015, a month before General Secretary Nguyễn Phú Trọng started his U.S. visit, on the occasion of a visit to Vietnam by then U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the chiefs of the two militaries signed a joint vision statement on defense relations between the two countries. Despite the non-binding nature of these two documents, that the top leaders of the two militaries sat down together and came to agreement with each other on the policy-level issues was extremely meaningful, beyond imagination of many. In addition, Vietnam and the U.S. have materialized their cooperation in many important fields of both strategic significance and high practicality to us. Most recently, on April 9, 2021, at the 3rd Coast Guard Region, the U.S. handed over to the Vietnam Coast Guard a Center for maritime training, maintenance and infrastructure. This is yet another project of cooperation which is very critical for a country like Vietnam: Having a coastline over 3,000 km long and an East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) rich in natural resources and with a vital maritime shipping lane of the region and the world, at the same time where highly complicated developments have taken place. 

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Representatives of the VUSAC hand over the masks to the US Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink in a symbolic ceremony in Hanoi on April 29, 2020. Photo: US Embassy in Hanoi

 

From the perspective of a veteran once combating the U.S., I have always remembered that Uncle Hồ stated during the wartime that we were prepared to have the entire Trường Sơn mountain range burnt down and Hà Nội, Hải Phòng and a number of major cities destroyed in order to win back independence and freedom. As for us soldiers, we even had this title “Valiant GI Terminator” – the more American GIs you put out of action, the more honored you would be. On the U.S. side, needless to say anything at length, let me just quote the title of a book about the Vietnam War authored by Nick Turse: “Kill Anything That Moves.” That was how we aimed at each other. That was how we behaved towards each other. And now, that is how we have cooperated with each other. Let me also say this in this connection: Diplomats never say things of this sort. But we, Vietnamese and American combat veterans, when meeting in post-war encounters, particularly when joining hands in efforts to overcome the consequences of that war, we do recall those stuffs. It is special, isn’t it?

With a new President taking office in the U.S., many experts predict new opportunities for Vietnam-U.S. economic cooperation. Over half a year has elapsed since then, what’s your view of the prediction?

I believe the prediction is entirely well-grounded. In retrospect, prior to 1994, meaning prior to the U.S. lift of embargo against Vietnam, we did not export a single dollar to the U.S. and imported a meager US$7 million. In 1994, the first year after the embargo was lifted, we exported US$50.5 million to the U S. and imported US$ 173 million from the U.S. And last year 2020 saw a “colossal” 2-way Vietnam-U.S. trade volume, especially given the Covid-19 pandemic raging all over the world, of which our exports to the U.S. were some US$ 76.4 billion and imports from the U.S. were about US$ 13.7 billion, enabling the total volume to surpass the US$ 90 billion landmark for the first time. Or in the first 6 months of this year alone, highly impressive figures have continued the trajectory: Our exports to the U.S. were US$ 44.9 billion and imports from the U.S. were US$ 7.7 billion. These figures tell us two things.

One, President Joe Biden’s Administration is inheriting the bilateral economic and trade development momentum which started when diplomatic relations were established 26 years ago, hence assertion that the trade relations continue to move along the general upward trajectory of the two countries’ relationship, whichever political party is in power in the U.S.

Two, under President Joe Biden, despite the devastating Covid-19 pandemic and the complicated political, economic and social situation, both globally and regionally, the Vietnam-U.S. economic and trade relations are remaining steadfast as a true pillar of the overall Vietnam-U.S. relationship. This sends out a very optimistic signal about the future ties.

By  the way, Sir, there have been worries about the U.S. Administration raising the issue of Vietnam being a currency manipulator and a major trade surplus earner against the U.S… What do you think about this?

Perhaps it’s advisable to always bear in mind a fact that Vietnam is just a country with a population ranked 24th in the world and with both GDP and income per capita far lower than those of the U.S., and yet this country now – amongst 193 countries members of the United Nations – is the 10th largest trading partner of the U.S. and the latter has been Vietnam’s largest export market for the past decade. Supposing we have a tiny trading partner gaining a sizeable and continuous trade surplus against us, would we make a question mark? This is more than natural, I think. The issue is once a question mark is raised by the U.S., we should work it out with them in a concrete and transparent manner and by means of negotiation and dialogue. In the diplomatic terminology, it’s settlement in a peaceful and productive manner.

In reality, our representatives as high as State President and Prime Minister as well as Foreign Minister and Industry and Trade Minister… have all held phone discussions with their U.S. counterparts. The last several months alone, for example, saw Industry and Trade Minister Trần Tuấn Anh (now member of the Party Politburo and Chairman of Central Party Economic Commission) having 2 phone conversations with his U.S. counterparts: With Trade Representative Robert Highlightzer in January 2021 and with Trade Representative Katherine Tai in April 2021.

What is really important and positive is that during those phone discussions, the U.S. side has consistently affirmed Vietnam’s significatn role in the economic and trade relations, and appreciated Vietnam’s effective cooperation and long-term commitments through multiple cooperation frameworks. In those discussions, too, the two sides have reached a high degree of agreement on the objective of maintaining a stable trade relationship towards a harmonious, sustainable and mutually beneficial balance of trade. They have also agreed on the need to put to full swing the existing mechanisms such as the TIFA Council (on trade and investment), set up more working groups as necessary, and better engage economic and trade administration agencies of both countries.

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Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh (right) welcomes U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at the Government Office, Hanoi, Viet Nam. Photo: VGP

According to the data provided by the Foreign Investment Department (under the Ministry of Planning and Investment), the U.S. modestly ranks 11th among foreign investors in Vietnam, with 1,100 projects and a registered capital totalling less than US$10 billion, not at all commensurate to the country’s potentials. What would be your comment on this?

I have heard, read and thought a lot about this. Judging by the public and official investment portfolio, it’s correctly the case, I think. As a result, it’s a must for us to look for measures to increase the U.S. investment to Vietnam, especially if the huge potentials possessed by the U.S. corporate sector are taken into account. That said, we also need to look at some other aspects.

First, when taking stock of the U.S. investment in Vietnam, we have to count the many big U.S. firms based in Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, etc. which haven’t been officially registered but which do make investments in Vietnam. Our statistics have not reflected this.

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Ambassador Nguyen Phuong Nga betows PeaceTrees Vietnam Founder Jerilyn Brusseau with the Order of Friendship in recognition for her efforts to heal war wounds in Vietnam

 

Second, to look straight into realities, we haven’t created a sufficient appeal to U.S. investors. Let me be specific: During the 35 year-process of Renewal, one of the best successes we have achieved is our emergence from a virtually no-law status to the formation of a legal framework in general and a foreign investment legal framework in particular. Nevertheless, such formation is just the first step leading to the creation of an environment truly conducive to foreign investment. The steps that follow include inter alias ensuring that the administration apparatus, the business community and the whole society are aware of laws, understand laws and comply with laws. This is THE area where we are in need of greater improvements. Next, a system of law enforcement, a system of proper infrastrucres and a pool of appropriate personnel need to be put in place. Our Party and State have discussed intensively these topics. Bear in mind this: Not only American investors, but whoever before pulling money out of pockets to invest in something will have to make loss vs. profit calculations and to have an ensured basis for their credibility.

Success in controlling the Covid-19 pandemic plus reform efforts combined have helped Vietnam become more attractive in the eye of foreign investors. What do you expect from the Vietnam-U.S. relations in the time to come?

There’s no patriotic Vietnamese without a desire for ours to become a better country with a more inviting investment and business environment for foreign investors in general and American investors in particular. 

By the way, as regards the Covid-19 pandemic, we can be proud to say that we expressed sympathy towards the American people right from the beginning when the pandemic attacked them before us, causing them untold destruction. And  not only sympathy. Despite our much less financial resources and much lower scientific and technological expertise than those of the U.S., we came in their hard times to share with them our limited face masks and medical supplies. Even members of the Vietnam U.S. Alumni Club under our Vietnam-U.S.A. Society, their relatives and friends donated 300,000 face masks for the American people. The U.S. treasures this! It’s still fresh in my mind the U.S. President’s tweeter of thanks upon our first medical shipment’s arrival at a U.S. airport. And U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink more than once said this English proverb, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” 

Our sympathy and acts originate from our absolutely selfless and pure humanism. As such, they help to demonstrate the beauty and the charm of Vietnam. And they, in turn, constitute one of essential foundations for a boosted Vietnam-U.S. relationship. Opportunities are opening up in front of us. As for myself, given my past foreign service career and involvement in promoting the Vietnam-U.S. relations, I highly look forward to seeing such opportunities fully tapped as well as the current comprehensive partnership further broadened and deepened, in the interests of our country and nation, and for the sake of the good ties between the people of both countries. As for our government, businesses and society, what I look forward to is not just their wish to see but their proactive and energetic preparations for those opportunities.

Reporter: Thank you for your interesting discussions!

Hồng Thanh