Interview with Mme Ton Nu Thi Ninh,
Yuli Ismartono [time 30:20]
24th August, 2007
Yuli Ismartono: Vietnam is definitely on the map now, after years of war, and years of the world not knowing Vietnam at all. I believe it was your job to introduce Vietnam to the world. Can you tell us about the early days?
Mme Ton Nu Thi Ninh: Well, if I may, I would like to make a slight correction. During the war years, Vietnam was known. In fact, the name Vietnam seems to involve war and there was a phrase that our late deputy prime minister Le May told journalists because he wanted to explain to them, Don't think of Vietnam only in terms of the past, and therefore of the war. Vietnam is not just the name of a war. It's also a country, a people. But of course, trying to put a unified and peaceful Vietnam in the regional and world map takes time, because what people have in their minds are images of the past. But with all the development, in the past couple of decades and with Vietnam's international integration, I think today, we have a chance to do that at last. I have been talking to various audiences and now is the time for Vietnam to take its place under the sun. Other nations could do that much earlier. Vietnam, because of the war, the turbulences of the post Cold War period, Vietnam was quite isolated. Only recently, since the early 1990s, has Vietnam really come into its own and it has taken more than 10 years to do that.
YI: But Vietnam is now back in the groove, as you say, and Vietnam is now very active in international organizations, international conferences. What is the priority policy of Vietnam today?
Ninh: We are proud that we finally made the hurdle of the WTO accession. But I think fortunately people understand, the policy makers as well as the businesses and even the broad public that the end of one phase is the beginning of another phase, which is quite difficult. That is, we have to live up to a commitment. We are trying to understand what the WTO means to us, the challenges. Now the challenge is to be a viable, a respected and effective member of the WTO. It means that it's a job that must be done not only by the government but by the business community in tandem, together. They must pool together their strengths. So far, it seems to be moving in the right direction, but before we can decide whether Vietnam has achieved positively the expectations of the post-WTO period, we have to wait a couple more years. One of the challenges would particularly be in the area of intellectual property. Another would be in how to monitor our trade flow. As you know there are protective tendencies surface immediately as soon as there is a surge in trade. So, at the moment, we are monitoring very carefully our exports to the US market, in particular, just to ward off the possibility of anti-dumping and take measures.
YI: It's a problem faced by a number of ASEAN countries.
Ninh: Thailand, Indonesia. So, it's like learning to live with a trade friction. Now we realize that getting into the WTO doesn't mean you end up having trade friction. It's just that those trade friction and disputes will have a framework within which will be detrimental when we have to face such protectionist measures from major markets.
YI: Ten years ago, Vietnam joined ASEAN. What will it gain by becoming a member of this regional group?
Ninh: Vietnam's accession to ASEAN was really a message that Vietnam had realized that its integration with the outside world needed to be rooted to the regional framework. And that's true of all countries today. Vietnam has come to that realization and nobody since then has ever regretted our accession into ASEAN. It was a bit difficult at first, in the sense that knowing the history of ASEAN, there was some apprehension from individual members that perhaps the gap in the development level, the different ideology, the political system, might be a to the advance of ASEAN. But these apprehensions were unfounded because on the contrary Vietnam has in fact, not only moved along the regional consensus, it has been an active contributor to that common consensus, to the common interest of ASEAN. One of the best example is how we organized the ASEAN summit back in 1998, and also how we steered the Asian 4th summit in Hanoi. If you remember at the time Myanmar's participation was a bone of contention, between the European group and our group. So Vietnam has played by the rules of the game, and it has contributed to advancing those rules.
YI: The economic gap has been cleared, no question about that. What about the ideological gap? The ASEAN Charter is soon to be signed and some countries like Myanmar, Laos seem reluctant about it. Is Vietnam in agreement will all aspects of the Charter?
Ninh: My perception is that Vietnam always goes along with the overall trend consensus. I don't think Vietnam will ever want to be in the minority. And remember one thing: Vietnam's is in an environment where there are different political systems, and we have been elected in the United Nations General Assembly to be a member of the Security Council for two years starting January 2008. So, we are ready for that challenge and we have to think hard what kind of contribution we want to make there. And the fact that we will be the only ASEAN member there. I do hope that my colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will think of always touching home base with the other ASEAN countries to make sure that what we do will not be only for Vietnam's interests but also to the extent that we can, for the interest of ASEAN.
YI: What will be Vietnam's priorities in its relations with emerging giants like China which was once a political foe of Vietnam?
Ninh: Political foe I think is a description that might not be too accurate. That there were frictions and tensions, yes. But our relationship with China goes back a long, long time. It can be said that the relationship has never been so good. Take the long years of history (between us) and tell me when that relationship was better. Of course, it doesn't mean it can't be even better. But if you take a retrospective view, the long years of history, this is a sign when things are at their best. It can be better but of course there remains areas of dispute like the Spratly Islands issue, or sometimes the question of overlapping fishing areas. This can lead to tension as well. But all in all, things are moving in the right direction. We have now, for the first time in the two countries' history, a land border agreement. We have a northern territorial waters demarcation. That was unheard of before. And having that, I think, is a commitment on both sides, not just from Vietnam. So, I would say, there remains tensions on territorial issues around the Spratly Island. There are problems in the economy and trade, because there are still a lot smuggling from China into Vietnam. These are what I would call the usual friction. Just look at Mexico and the US. Do they have ideological problems? They don't. But they have a huge, enormous problem in trade and in immigration. So, in the case of Vietnam, in the social level, we also have a problem of many quite a number of Vietnamese women marrying Chinese husbands, but sometimes not always in an equal and wholesome condition, meaning some of these women are put in a vulnerable situation. This could be a real problem but not of major proportions.