Former US Deputy Chief of Mission expects ‘substantial outcome’ from President Joe Biden ’s visit to Vietnam

During her interview with the World & Viet Nam Report, Mrs. Susan Sutton, former US Deputy Chief of Mission to Vietnam (2015-2017), shared her perspective and expectation of US President Joe Biden’s visit from September 10- 11, 2023.
(09.08) Cựu phó Đại sứ Hoa Kỳ tại Việt Nam Susan Sutton tại Hội thảo Nâng cao khả năng tiếp cận các thị trường khu vực và toàn cầu cho doanh nghiệp nhỏ và vừa tháng 7/2015. (Nguồn: Bộ Kế hoạch & Đầu tư)

Former US Deputy Chief of Mission to Vietnam was optimistic about President Biden's upcoming visit to Vietnam: Mrs. Susan Sutton at the Workshop on Improving SME access to regional and global market in September 2015. (Photo: Ministry of Planning & Investment)

Can you touch on the context of President Biden’s visit to Vietnam?

You know, I thought when I was in Vietnam, we were living in complicated times and, did they get more complicated. The COVID-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the situation in the South China Sea, ect, those are really big issues that affect all of us. Therefore, I think it is particularly important at this time for the US to really strengthen the relationships that we have with countries which think like we do about international relations.

Recently, a couple weeks ago, your Defense Minister was in Moscow. He called for “upholding international law, adhering to regional commitment, showing due consideration the security concerns of each nation and persistently resolving differences and conflicts in peaceful means”. The US completely agrees with that.

Therefore, we see Vietnam as a country that thinks very much the way we do in the arena of international law and international relations. That's one reason why we are very happy now to look at ways to strengthen and develop that relationship.

The other thing is just that bilaterally over recent years, Vietnam has been a very good and steady partner. Our trade and investment are growing rapidly. People-to-people ties are growing, although not as fast as I would like. It just makes sense to invest in a relationship which is already successful and is having momentum.

In your opinion, what are the implications of the visit to US-Vietnam relations?

I will start out by saying that in my years working with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, I noticed one major difference between us: For ASEAN countries, visits are the point. For American, outcomes are the point. When you look the way the US press covers a presidential visit, there is a nice picture of the President and your President, having a toast. Our press is not interested in that. They are interested in whether we are building factories, exporting more corn, importing something useful or announcing program.

Therefore, we want to see results from the visit. For many cases, if we have disagreements on trade or any point, we can try to use the visit to resolve and look into new areas of cooperation. Right now, I know that your Foreign Ministry, the US’ State Department and both Embassies are working hard to prepare this trip.

For the implications for the relationship or the visit, I think you have to see the outcomes. I am confident because every visit we have had, we have had very good concrete outcomes. Therefore, I would expect to see that this time also.

What is your perspective on the development of US-Viet Nam relations recently?

I think that the developments have been excellent, particularly since we signed the comprehensive partnership. Comprehensive Partnership gave us structure and enabled us to prioritize certain things and gave direction to our cooperation. The comprehensive partnership gave a “green light” to ministries, provincial Vietnamese officials to promote cooperation with the US in certain sectors.

I think that on the official level, we've made very good progress and I am hoping for more in the future. However, I think we can do better. If you look at any country in Europe, and you google “US country exchanges”, you will have page after page of Rotary Club, academic exchanges, high school exchanges, college exchanges, internships, business exchanges.

You know, our country is a democracy. What are people think about the direction or our foreign policy matters. If they think it matters that we build a good relationship with the country it helps us on having budgets, signing treaties, encouraging investment an. If the American people think “I do not know what kind of place that is, should we really have anything to do with them?”, it holds us back. Therefore, I think we need to look at ways to encourage that. Currently, most Americans do not know very much about Vietnam. Therefore, I would hope to see some loosening up and encouraging people-to-people connections.

For the future of the relationship, we are in quite good place right now. I am very pleased that the president is visiting. Every US president has visited since we normalized the relation, with President Biden paying a visit earlier in his term. It stresses the President’s interest, as well as the US’, in this important relationship.

However, we do have our differences. We are still sometimes having difficulty understanding each other. Therefore, I think we need to keep working on understanding what are the kind of boundaries, what are the things that impede us from cooperating so that we can learn to overcome those barriers better together. So far, I think we have done a good job and I hope to see us continue.

As you have said, the US is more focusing on the outcome of the trip rather than the trip itself. What is your expectation for this trip?

Personally, I have seen Vietnam's recent announcements with Australia and with Singapore that the country is looking to upgrade those relationships. It makes a lot of sense for Viet Nam at this point to look and widen that circle, you know, as Vietnam’s foreign policy always says, “we want to be a friend to everybody”.

In addition, I do think now there's a very strong expectation that there will be an announcement, so I will look forward to that. Moreover, I think we always see some good announcements in terms of cooperation and things like healthcare, which is so important to both sides, trade and maybe some people-to-people exchanges. Although I have not seen anything coming, I would love to see some.

A veteran diplomat with 35 years of experience, Mrs. Susan Sutton served as Director of the Office of Maritime Southeast Asia in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs; Deputy Director of the Office of Bilateral Affairs in the Bureau of Human Rights, Democracy and Labor; and Country Officer for Bulgaria and Albania.

Overseas, the veteran diplomat stationed at Romania, Bulgaria, Laos và Thailand. Notably, she was assigned US Deputy Chief of Mission to Vietnam (2015-2017) under Ambassador Ted Osius.

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