For U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Marc Evans Knapper, the bilateral relationship between Vietnam and the United States is already fundamentally strategic in nature. He is “extremely hopeful” about the possibility of upgrading the relationship to a strategic partnership.
Elevating Vietnam – U.S. relations to a strategic partnership has been a prospect for a long time, and will certainly be one of the top priorities in the agenda for 2023 as the two countries celebrate the 10th anniversary of the existing comprehensive partnership.
This will also be a milestone for Ambassador Knapper, who started his tenure at a special time. The role of the U.S. as a superpower has become even more important as global politics have witnessed ups and downs with economic difficulties, armed conflicts, and geopolitical tensions.
In this context, the relationship between the U.S. and Vietnam, widely seen as a country with an important geopolitical position in the Indo-Pacific, is worth considering as a case that reflects Washington’s commitments and foreign policies in the region.
During an exclusive interview with Tuoi Tre News, Ambassador Knapper shared his views on key developments in the bilateral relationship between the two countries as well as his perspective on some concerns over the U.S.'s foreign policies.
Vietnamese Prime Minister's trip to US
It's been almost one year since you took office. What is your most important achievement so far and what makes you feel the most satisfied?
It’s hard to say what the most significant accomplishment is because there's been a lot of really important developments over the past ten months for us, not just me but the team we have here. But if I were to give a few examples of things that we could point to, I would say, first of all, we had a really successful visit by the Prime Minister [Pham Minh Chinh] coming to Washington in May for the U.S. - ASEAN Special Summit.
While the ASEAN summit was the focus, the great thing about that visit was that the Prime Minister took with him many, many Cabinet members: the Minister of Public Security, Minister of Planning and Investment, Minister of Industry and Trade, Minister of Natural Resources & Environment… and not just to Washington, but Boston, New York, San Francisco. And through these visits, it was almost like a proper state visit.
Moreover, at the same time, Vietnam also joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). For the United States, we see IPEF as really a critical and central element to our country's economic engagement with the region… We see IPEF as a 21st century effort, not just to engage economically but to collectively address some of the biggest issues of our time: supply chain disruptions.
We also found out that, in terms of the number of students studying in the United States, Vietnam had been number six in the world, but now it is number five. If you look at the other countries, such as India, China, South Korea, Canada or the UK, in terms of the population, national income, gross domestic product (GDP)… (we see) the fact that Vietnam is number five, and I think this says a lot about the quality of our relationship, and it says a lot about the confidence that Vietnamese families have in sending their kids to the United States.
You just mentioned the IPEF. What is the role of Vietnam in IPEF? Why do you pick Vietnam and other certain countries in Southeast Asia?
When it comes to regional economic architecture, Vietnam is a natural choice to participate, given the size, the importance of its economy, the important role it plays in supply chains, not just supply chains within Asia.
In my view, we cannot have a regional economic architecture without Vietnam. It's impossible. Frankly, the goals of IPEF are very much in line with the goals of our bilateral relationship with Vietnam, whether it is promoting trade, whether it is strengthening supply chain resilience, constructing sustainable infrastructure... And so I can't imagine an IPEF without Vietnam.
What can we expect from the Vietnam - U.S. relations in 2023? What would be the top priorities?
I think the APEC [Asia - Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum] is coming, we are the host and we are very proud of that… We have basically five big meetings that will take place over the course of the year, culminating with the leaders’ summit in San Francisco. I think tied to that, will be the IPEF.
I would say next year also you will see continued work on our war legacy cooperation, Agent Orange remediation and cooperation on health, environment, energy transition. In terms of our shared strategic goals in the East Vietnam Sea, we will ensure that it remains free and open and that Vietnam's sovereignty and territorial integrity are protected. I support working with Vietnam as it plays an even greater role on the world stage. I mean, and this is something that we, the United States, fully support and we will do whatever we can to ensure Vietnam is able to successfully take on these tasks.
Vietnam has a choice
I would like to talk a little bit about some U.S. policies. Some events raised concerns over your commitment to your allies, for example, the Scarborough Shoal and the Philippines or the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. What do you think about this?
I think, if you look at a couple of things, the Biden administration has made a very strong and clear commitment to the Indo-Pacific. This has been made clear through major policy pronouncements, whether it's our Indo-Pacific strategy, national defense strategy, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, these are very, very clear signs that we as a government recognize the importance of Indo-Pacific to the future security, prosperity, infrastructure, current and future prosperity and stability and security for the U.S at the same time.
It was a very clear statement about the importance of our alliance relationships. And so I think, on the contrary, over the last two years, we have seen our commitments to our friends and partners and allies in the region strengthened even more, whether you're talking about treaty allies like Japan, Korea, the Philippines, or emerging partners and friends like India and Vietnam. We are fully committed to these friendships and ensuring that our friends and partners and allies have the means they need to defend their interests. You know, when I say interests, I mean, these are interests that we, of course, share.
We think about this a lot, too. What is the image, the reputation of the United States? And I'm confident that over the last two years, the steps the Biden administration has taken in the Indo-Pacific to ensure that our commitments are solid and reliable. It is fundamental and tantamount to our own interests that we have a strong and sustainable and durable commitment to this part of the world.
There are also concerns over what the people call “protectionism” in the U.S. in terms of your economic policy currently. In the visit of Emmanuel Macron to the U.S., the EU called for the change in the U.S. “protectionism”…
I think there is no market in the world more open than in the United States. We welcome goods from around the world to ensure that American consumers and manufacturers and others have what they need. At the same time, though, President Biden has made very clear that our foreign policy is a foreign policy for the middle class, centered on ensuring American workers get a fair deal.
For example, we are trying to work in markets like Vietnam and want to ensure that there is a level playing field. Naturally, when it comes to trying to focus on the American worker and American prosperity in American companies, our policies are going to reflect this. And so when it comes to things like the Inflation Reduction Act, for example, we're very focused on ensuring that these high tech and future technologies are able to remain centered in the U.S. As President Biden said, of course, there might be some tweaking, because we recognize that there has been some concerns that have been raised among our friends and allies.
We will always listen to the concerns of others, the concerns of our partners, of our allies. But at the end of the day, the United States government, we have to take care of the United States, U.S. consumers, U.S. companies.
Vietnam and other countries do not want to pick sides. What can you do to make sure that you can protect your national interests while respecting others' choices?
I don't see that as mutually exclusive, I think. Frankly, it's not a zero-sum game. Vietnam, of course, like every other country in the region, has a vigorous and important economic relationship with China. We don't dispute that nor do we try to undermine that. But what we do want, though, is to ensure that as Beijing goes about its business, it does so in a way that respects international practice, international law, and does not attempt to coerce other countries or unilaterally change the status quo, whether it's the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the East Vietnam Sea.
So I think we don't see it as demanding Vietnam choose, but we do want to make sure Vietnam has a choice. And part of that means ensuring that there are rules of the road, there are ways to do business out there, and that China, as it conducts its business, does it in a way that it doesn't bully or pressure other countries.
Possibility of President Biden’s visit
Thank you very much. But I think you may have missed something. What about President Biden's visit to Vietnam?
You know, I have nothing to announce right now. But certainly, high level diplomacy has always been an essential part of our two countries relationship and its growth over the last 27 years.
In terms of our own president's visit, we will see, you know, President Biden's a busy guy. But every president since Bill Clinton has visited Vietnam, and I see no reason why President Biden couldn't. But we have to see. I mean, that's the White House's decision. And if I say anything more, I'll get in trouble [laughing].
So, we are waiting for the phone call between President Biden and Vietnamese Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, right?
We are. All I can say is that it is a priority for us. And we're working very hard to make it happen.
Prepare for it? Are you prepared?
Well. Again, this is totally dependent on the president's schedule and in the general secretary's schedule. And so we are, you know, in very active conversation with the leadership to make this happen.
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