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Interview: US Ambassador to Vietnam sees ‘no limits’ to Washington-Hanoi relations

  • September 27, 2022
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

Marc Knapper

HANOI (Mainichi) — After waging an intense war in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States and Vietnam are seeing their diplomatic ties strengthen. In 2021, trade between the two countries reached $113 billion, and in August that year, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Vietnam in her first trip to Southeast Asia under the administration of President Joe Biden. Visits by high-ranking officials have continued since then.


In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Marc Knapper said the relationship between the two countries has “no limits.” But why is the U.S. now emphasizing its relationship with Vietnam, which maintains a communist dictatorship system? Below is a summary of the interview questions and answers, in which Knapper shares the United States’ aspirations.



Question: How does the United States intend to engage with the Asia-Pacific region as a whole and strengthen of relations with Vietnam?


Answer: The Biden administration feels very strongly that the United States is an Indo-Pacific country. We are part of the Indo-Pacific, and we believe engagement in the Indo-Pacific is important for our prosperity, peace and stability. The U.S. approach to Vietnam is based on the five pillars of the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” announced by the Biden administration, including promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific and ensuring that the region is secure.


We desire Vietnam to be strong, independent, prosperous, resilient, and be able to defend its interests and protect its territory. We want Vietnam to be prosperous, and so we work towards strengthening our trade and investment. Huge American investments here have created jobs and Vietnamese companies are investing in the United States. A Vietnamese manufacturer of electric vehicles is going to invest in the state of North Carolina and this is going to create jobs for American workers, which is very exciting. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Vietnam provided masks and protective clothing to the United States, and the United States provided vaccines to Vietnam. It goes to our desire for a Vietnam that can be resilient in the face of something like a global pandemic. The same applies to climate change. Former Secretary of State John Kerry (the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate) visited this year to discuss how to deal with the effects of climate change. We also want a secure Vietnam that can defend its land, air, water. We’ve given two very large Coast Guard vessels to Vietnam and are preparing to provide a third one. We share with Vietnam the view that the People’s Republic of China has made illegal and overreaching claims in the South China Sea.


Q: How is the United States working with Vietnam to achieve a more open and inclusive society?


A: The United States holds dear the importance of inclusion, diversity, accessibility, equity. These are key aspects to our society and we try to make sure they are included in our approach as we engage with other countries around the world. In Vietnam, we are interested in improving the rights of people with disabilities. We continue to promote the role of civil society in addressing issues related to diversity and inclusion together with the government and civil society here.


Q: Will the human rights situation in Vietnam be a hinderance to building relationships?


A: I said at my hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last July that working to promote the human rights situation here would be a key goal of my tenure. We have concerns about the situation here but we will address them respectfully and frankly without hesitation. We are trying to be true to our values, but not just U.S. values — in many ways these are universal values that are related to international conventions that many countries including Vietnam have signed. The U.S.-Vietnam relationship will never reach its full potential as long as there are concerns about the human rights situation here.


Q: How is the recent relationship between the United States and Vietnam positioned in the history of both countries?


A: If we go back to the period after World War II, Ho Chi Minh (the first president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam) wrote letters to Harry Truman, our president at the time (to request support for independence from France). Unfortunately, history took a different turn and we ended up fighting a tragic and very painful war. My father fought as a soldier in the Vietnam War.


But now we are focusing on the future and building a relationship that is mutually beneficial, that is respectful, that is geared towards ensuring that both of our countries and the peoples of both of our countries are able to have a prosperous and stable livelihood.


I worked in Vietnam 15 years ago, but our relationship at that time was still pretty narrow. I have been really struck to come back now as ambassador and see how broad our ties are. I feel a strong sense of responsibility to not just manage the ties that exist, but also to try and find new areas of cooperation. Now the two countries are even talking about space cooperation.


Q: What are your thoughts looking back on the improvement in bilateral relations?


A: The investigation into the missing soldiers from the Vietnam War and educational exchanges, which began before the normalization of diplomatic relations, were two important beginnings. The two countries are now at the cutting edge of globally important issues. And Vietnam is a true and equal partner. It’s a relationship in which we respect each other’s political systems.


Q: How did the two countries overcome their history of war?


A: It took the work of a lot of brave people on both sides who recognized the importance of not trying to forget or ignore the past but to try and address the issues from the war — but also to build a future for the sake of both of our peoples. It didn’t just happen. We here now, who work on behalf of this relationship are beneficiaries of that kind of bravery and that commitment to build a new relationship.


Q: What role do you expect Japan to play in the region?


A: I have worked in Japan for many years and I think Japan is our closest ally, not just in the region but in the world. We have no better ally than Japan in terms of our shared values, interests and economic connectivity. And so with Japan, there is so much we can do when we work together. I think one thing we share with Japan is our approach to Vietnam and our recognition of the importance of Vietnam and Vietnam’s role in the region. We have no better partner here in Vietnam than Japan.


(Interviewed by Kana Takagi, Bangkok Bureau)



Profile: Marc E. Knapper was appointed as U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam after serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Korea and Japan in the Department of State and Charge d’Affaires ad interim in Seoul, as well as Deputy Chief of Mission. He previously studied at the University of Tokyo and can speak Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese.

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