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Vietnam, US share aligned interests, vision: Ambassador Kritenbrink

Thursday, January 21, 2021, 11:20 GMT+7
Vietnam, US share aligned interests, vision: Ambassador Kritenbrink
US Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink. Photo: Nguyen Khanh / Tuoi Tre

U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink is known as the ambassador of 'the firsts' for his historic visits to Truong Son National Cemetery in Quang Tri Province and Ham Rong Bridge in Thanh Hoa Province.

During his tenure, two U.S. aircraft carriers visited Vietnam. 

After three years under the Trump administration, Ambassador Kritenbrink has made great contributions to the Vietnam-U.S. relations in several categories.

He offered Tuoi Tre News an exclusive interview on his last days in Vietnam, before Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th U.S. president on January 20. 

Before and after the U.S. presidential election, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien paid official visits to Vietnam. What were the key messages they delivered? 

The two visits aimed primarily to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our relationship. In the meetings between Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador O’Brien and Vietnamese high-ranking leaders, there was a very candid exchange of our views on the region, how we would like to see the region develop and what we would like to do in the future.

Secretary Pompeo announced US$2 million aid to flood victims in central Vietnam. Ambassador O'Brien announced an additional $20 million to help clean up dioxin in Bien Hoa airbase. 

And as a result of the discussions during Pompeo's visit, in December, we were able to exchange notes on building a new embassy, here in Hanoi. And, of course, that exchange of notes also formalized Vietnam's opening of its new embassy in Washington, D.C.

Some of my friends wondered whether it was strange that Pompeo and O'Brien had come here on such short notice, “there must be something special going on.” And in my view, that is, the special thing that's going on is we're growing this partnership in friendship and in a very meaningful way.

Ambassador Kritenbrink tours the historic Temple of Literature in Hanoi on November 17, 2020. Photo: Hai Pham / Tuoi Tre

Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink tours the historical Temple of Literature in Hanoi on November 17, 2020. Photo: Hai Pham / Tuoi Tre

Commerce is one of the most important pillars in the two countries’ bilateral relations. How have the U.S. and Vietnam worked on this sector, especially under the COVID-19 impacts? 

We have gone from a few hundreds of millions of dollars worth of trade in 1994 to almost $80 billion today. That exponential growth is extraordinary. The U.S. is Vietnam's largest export market in the world. You're one of our fastest-growing export markets in the world. And there are tremendous opportunities here in Vietnam, especially in healthcare, energy, transportation, infrastructure development, IT sector, many, many others. That's why you see most of our globally leading companies are here to invest or trade. Now, the good news is we've worked really well with Vietnamese partners and in a respectful and cooperative way, we've resolved many of those concerns.

Even though 2020 was a really challenging year because of COVID-19, for the reasons I've outlined, it was a great year as well. And I think a real bright spot was our cooperation on health. 

For more than 20 years, we've provided Vietnam with almost $1 billion in healthcare assistance and $13 million in 100 ventilators in 2020 to try to help Vietnam combat COVID-19.

In our time of need, Vietnamese companies, Vietnamese people, and the Vietnamese government also donated millions of articles of medical protective equipment, medical masks, medical suits, and the like, helping save American lives – lives of average Americans and American health workers.

And I think we found out in our time of need, we found out that Vietnam is one of our absolute best friends.

When I look back, even on a challenging year like 2020, I think the U.S. managed to turn that into a good story, demonstrating what we can do as partners and friends. So again, whether it's health sector cooperation, economic and trade, security, people-to-people ties, legacy of war, whatever it may be. I think our cooperation is only going to grow further. 

The US Ambassador makes a speech at Temple of Literature on November 17, 2020 on the anniversary of Vietnamese Teachers' Day November 20. Photo: Hai Pham / Tuoi Tre

U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kritenbrink makes a speech at the Temple of Literature on November 17, 2020 on the anniversary of Vietnamese Teachers' Day (November 20). Photo: Hai Pham / Tuoi Tre

Reflecting on your tenure, what has been your most meaningful achievement so far?

Personally, the most meaningful to me is probably the work that my team and I have done on the legacy of war and reconciliation issues. I was honored to be the first ambassador to visit Truong Son Cemetery in Quang Tri, the Ho Chi Minh City Martyr Cemetery as well as Bien Hoa Cemetery. 

I witnessed American and Vietnamese veterans walking hand in hand across the Ham Rong Bridge. All of those events were just really moving to me as an ambassador and as an American.

We're continuing to do a great deal of work to remediate dioxin, or Agent Orange. 

I remember when I first arrived, our defense attaché happened to be a Vietnamese American. I asked him how long he thought we would need to keep working on these legacy-of-war issues. And he said forever.

And I agree with him. I think we'll always need to make sure we don't forget what happened, that we continue to try and take steps to address it and make it right, and vow that we'll never let that happen again. A very senior Vietnamese general once told me that only by continuing the legacy of war can we build the trust necessary to open up the door to greater strategic cooperation.

For a person like me, an American ambassador, I can't visit the Truong Son national cemetery unless the Vietnamese government and Vietnamese authorities feel comfortable and approve me to do so. These issues have been painful and sensitive for many Americans as well. 

So I feel privileged and grateful to have been in Vietnam at a time when our partnership and friendship have reached a point where those kinds of things are possible. We know one another well enough that we can do these things, either individually or together, which used to be seen as dangerous or a taboo.

I hope that they'll be routine. This foundation of trust and mutual respect has been built largely by addressing squarely and honestly the issues of the past.

During President Trump's tenure, the Indo-Pacific region has made a lot of headlines. How has the U.S. envisioned the Indo-Pacific region and Vietnam’s role in the area?

Vietnam, together with partners in ASEAN, is really central to our Indo-Pacific strategy.

If you look at the American history, we have concluded that America is stronger, safer, and more prosperous, when our allies, partners, and friends are also secure and stable, strong and successful. Because when we can work together with our like-minded, successful, strong sovereign partners, like Vietnam, we together can advance our shared objectives. And we can defend the principles that we believe as a contribution to a stable and peaceful and prosperous region – a region that's based on rules, a region where countries agree to resolve their disputes peacefully and to make their claims in accordance with international law, a region where the strong don't bully the weak, a region where countries can trade freely and where markets are open for us to compete to benefit both our countries and peoples.

That's how Vietnam fits into that picture because Vietnam is one of the most capable, successful countries in Southeast Asia. And I think that our vision for the region is almost completely identical. 

How important is the Indo-Pacific policy to ensure stability in the East Vietnam Sea?

As a maritime power, the U.S. believes that freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight, these bedrock principles in international law are vital to international commerce, to peace and stability around the globe.

The most dangerous situation that I can imagine in the international system would be a system where might makes right. And it's whoever is the strongest and the most aggressive will always win. In fact, we have a rules-based international order in which all countries are supposed to play the same rules.

The [East Vietnam Sea] is one of those areas where a rules-based order has been challenged. That's why we've spoken out so forcefully.

Our approach has been to diplomatically very active, including with our other like-minded partners in the region, to lay out our legal position on which claims we think are in accordance with international law, and to really emphasize that all claims should be based on international law and resolved peacefully.

I'm not going to speak on behalf of the Biden administration but I anticipate you'll see great continuity in many of America's policies and approaches to the Indo-Pacific region. At the time of transition, there will be changes under a binding defenestration. But I think you'll also see a great deal of continuity because America's fundamental interests in a stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific are not going to change.

How do you expect the Vietnam-U.S. relations under the Biden administration?

I anticipate you’ll continue to see the trend line that has continued ever since 1995 is going to be incredibly and rapidly rising. We have differences and concerns and challenges as well. Every partnership does, every marriage does. I can speak from personal experience. But I think as we've done in the last 25 years, we'll continue to address even our differences in a respectful and constructive way. And we'll get through them. I'm very optimistic about the next four years of the U.S.-Vietnam partnership, but I'm incredibly optimistic for the next 25 and 50 years of our partnership as well. 

In November 2017, you once told Tuoi Tre in your first-ever interview with the Vietnamese press that “coming to Vietnam is a dream come true." You have lived in this dream for three years. Now it’s time to “wake up." Is there any regret?

It really is a dream come true to have become the American ambassador to Vietnam. I knew it would be satisfying and challenging. What I didn't anticipate was how warm and welcoming Vietnamese people have been, whether somebody recognizes me on the street, or whether I'm just another foreigner walking around. 

I don't come here just as a diplomat but also a husband, a father. That's been a great experience for my wife and my two children to make Vietnamese friends, to go to school here, to travel all over the country, from Ha Giang down to Can Tho. If I had a small regret, I wish I'd been to even more places but I've saved a few things for me to do on my next trip. And my dreams of improving my Vietnamese didn't work out so well either.

You mentioned that I have to wake up from my dream, I don't like to look at it that way. I have this wonderful dream that's come true and had this time in Vietnam that I'll never forget. But I look forward to coming back off and staying in touch with that, with friends here.

We are so sorry about what happened at Capitol Hill on January 6. What do you think about the incident? 

It's been a difficult year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then the tragedy of what happened at the Capitol, which is deeply concerning. However, I continue to be very optimistic about the future of our country, of our democracy, of our partnership and friendship with Vietnam. 

As an American, the way I feel about it is that we have been striving to make a more perfect union since 1776, from the beginning of our founding, to the Civil War, to reconstruction, to the civil rights era, to the campaign for an equal rights amendment, to increasing rights enjoyed by those in the LGBT community. The story of America is this never-ending struggle to make things better and never-ending struggle to make sure that every American enjoys the rights to which they're entitled under our Constitution. There's always some tension and struggle involved. But I'm confident we'll get through. 

Khoa Thu - Quynh Trung / Tuoi Tre News

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