In the second part of his talks with VietNamNet, former Deputy Prime Minister Vu Khoan discussed the role of diplomacy in Vietnam’s economic development.

"I still remember the heavy pressure of isolation": Vu Khoan

Could you tell us about the story of the process from "internationalization" to "globalization"?


Actually, before the 6th National Party Congress we did not mention the concept "internationalization" because at that time many people thought that "internationalization" blurs class boundaries and “internationalization” could be similar to the convergence of socialism and capitalism.

Overcoming that obstacle, for the first time the 6th National Party Congress noted the concept "internationalization" and the party guideline adopted at the 7th Party Congress in 1991 highlighted the internationalization perspective. In 1996, the 7th National Party Congress mentioned the concept “globalization”.

It seems to be very simple now, but at that time fierce debate about these concepts broke out because some argued that the concept “globalization” is classless and a trick made by capitalist countries. But the 7th National Party Congress confirmed that globalization is an objective trend, with both positive and negative sides. Then debate on international integration broke out. 

Actually, the thought of integration came from President Ho Chi Minh. In December 1946, he sent a letter sent to the United Nations, written in French, with the following content:

Vietnam is ready to open its doors for foreign businesses and experts to do business in Vietnam, and allow other countries to use Vietnam’s roads, ports and airports for transit. Vietnam is even willing to cooperate with foreign armies and navies on the lease of several military airports and seaports. 

At the same time, President Ho Chi Minh affirmed that Vietnam is ready to participate in international organizations under the leadership of the UN.


Trade Minister Vu Khoan (left) exchanges an approval letter with US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick in Washington D.C. Photo: US Embassy

However, that great thought of President Ho Chi Minh was not turned into reality because our country was invaded and isolated for dozens of years and our implementation of the centrally planning economic mechanism. 

Only during the renovation period was the international integration policy carried out. In 1987, only a year after the 6th National Party Congress, Vietnam passed the law on foreign investment and then we joined the Paris Club to address public debts and the London Club to settle private debts. Meanwhile, other countries began granting ODA to Vietnam.

In the early 90s, Japan signaled that it was ready to negotiate ODA grants for Vietnam. I was assigned to participate in these negotiations. While our country was in a very difficult situation, Japan gave us the first ODA loan worth hundreds of millions of US dollars.

It was extremely valuable aid and at that time we encountered many obstacles from the US. This aid opened the door to other development aid, which have significantly contributed to Vietnam’s economic development.

Obviously, from a low-income, underdeveloped country, Vietnam has become a middle-income country, and this achievement must have positive contribution of the diplomatic sector. Please tell us the achievements of foreign affairs in the 30 years of renovation period.

Thanks to the foreign policy in the spirit of renovation, Vietnam has achieved very important results.

Firstly, from a country that was besieged and isolated, Vietnam now has diplomatic relations with 187 countries on five continents.

Secondly, Vietnam has created a favorable environment for economic development. When the renovation period started, the country’s export revenue was merely $1 billion but in 2015 it reached $160 billion. From losing all foreign aid, now foreign investment accounts for 20% of GDP while ODA is around $30 billion.

Thirdly, foreign affairs has contributed significantly to the creation of a legal basis for the formulation of territorial boundaries between Vietnam and the neighboring countries.

In the past we did not have any border agreement nor complete demarcation with any country, but now we have signed the agreements and finished border demarcation with China and Laos, and are promoting this work with Cambodia.

On the seas, we have reached an agreement on the delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf and the overlapping areas with Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia.

Thus, on the sea, we have only issues related to the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) and the waters with Cambodia. This achievement has helped our country define its borders, creating a basis for development and promoting cooperation with neighboring countries.

Fourthly, today Vietnam has a high position in the region and in the world, deeply participating in international organizations.

Were there hard days behind these accomplishments?

It is not an overstatement to say that each diplomatic activity is dramatic. The difficulties during the implementation of diplomatic tasks were tremendous. For example, the normalization of relations with China was not easy at all. However, we solved the land border issue and delimitation of the Tonkin Gulf and all aspects of relations between the two countries have also returned to normal. However, the dispute in the East Sea remains an obstacle in relations between the two sides.

The signing of the bilateral trade agreement with the United States was also not simple. In fact in 1989 the two countries completed the content of the agreement but the signing was postponed due to some differences. In 2000, I was appointed as the Minister of Trade and assigned the mission of completing negotiations and signing this agreement.

Before leaving Vietnam for the negotiation, the American Ambassador to Vietnam at that time, Pete Peterson, told me that he would not return to Washington with me until the completion of negotiations to not lose his face if once again the agreement was not signed.

By the way I have to say that diplomatic staff were always under heavy pressure because they have to shoulder the great work related to national destiny.

What do you think about the role of Mr. Nguyen Co Thach from 1986 to 1991?


Nguyen Co Thach meets with Mr. I.A. Rogachoc, Deputy Foreign Minister of the then-USSR, on November 27, 1988. 

I must say that Mr. Thach is our talented teacher. He was always passionate about his work, conducted research himself and had very innovative ideas.

Unconventionally, new ideas are not always easily accepted. To have their ideas accepted by others, one must have extensive knowledge which is enough to convince people. Mr. Thach is such a person.

Once you have the right idea, the determination to implement that idea is an indispensable condition. In the late 80s of the last century, Mr. Thach focused on two extremely important tasks: to find a solution to the problem of Cambodia and contribute to tackling hyperinflation in the country.

As the top leader of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Thach decided to neglect other tasks to focus on the two most important tasks above. I have learned from him that the leader must know what to do and must be “brave” to neglect the "minor" tasks, to assign these tasks to subordinates.

Did Thach set up the Economic Affairs Department of the Foreign Ministry and take you there?

At that time, Mr. Thach said that the Foreign Ministry should serve economic development but there were many different opinions within the ministry as some argued that diplomacy should focus on political tasks only. Meanwhile, other agencies also said that the foreign ministry should not "encroach upon" other fields.

However, Mr. Thach resolutely set out for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs the task of contributing to solving the economic problems in the country. He told us that diplomats should not do the tasks of others but the tasks that others don’t have favorable conditions to do; for example, knowledge about the world economy, international economic relations, and relationships with external partners.

With that idea in mind, at first he planned to establish the Directorate General for Economics but finally he set up three departments: the World Economic Department specializing in research of the world economic situation; the Economic Cooperation Department dedicated to collaboration with other agencies to promote economic relations and cooperation with international organizations; and the Economic Services Department specializing in summing up economic information to help the minister study economic issues of the country and contribute to solving these problems.

At that time, I was working for the internal affairs department and leaders of the Foreign Ministry planned to appoint me as head of the Department for Soviet Union and East European Affairs because the director of that department was sent to another country as the ambassador of Vietnam. 

However, one day Mr. Thach summoned me and asked me to be in charge of economic affairs. I said I did not know anything about economics and I even got poor scores for economics at the training classes for diplomats. Thach said I got a low score because I did not have the same idea with the lecturers so he chose me for this task.

Since then I began to be involved in economic affairs. I began learning about the experience of other countries in anti-inflation and the situation in the country to understand the source of inflation. 

I and my colleagues visited cooperatives, factories, and markets to better understand the real situation of our country at that time. We tried to combine practical knowledge of the country and the world to help the Ministry of Foreign Affairs propose appropriate solutions to solve problems of the country.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was also involved in shaping the first foreign investment law of Vietnam, opening economic relations with international economic organizations.

In your opinion, besides the achievements in the renovation period, what should we do to satisfy the requirements of economic development and integration of the country, particularly the challenge of independence and sea and island sovereignty?

President Ho Chi Minh said that diplomatic victory depends on internal resources. Internal resources here consist of hard and soft power. Hard power is the strength of the economy, defense and security. Soft power is the righteousness of the cause that we are pursuing, patriotism and courage of the entire nation, great national unity, sympathy and support of the people in the world, and right policies that fit national interests and the trends of the times.

By the way, I want to emphasize that patriotism does not mean narrow-minded nationalism. Vietnamese people love their country but they never nurture ethnic discrimination, and always extend their hearts to other peoples.

In the context of Vietnam’s deep integration and the challenges of multilateral, multi-polar, multi-dimensional relations, what should the diplomatic sector do? What big lessons has the diplomatic sector learned to prepare for a developed Vietnam in the future?

In my opinion, the most important lesson is proper awareness about the world, from which we have policies in line with our national interests, and positively with the world trend.

Another lesson is to combine national strength and the strength of the time. Today, the strength of the time lies in the notion of peace and cooperation of the people of the world, the trend of peace and stability for cooperation in the globe.

Besides, it is necessary to emphasize the general strength shown in the "coordination" between political diplomacy and economic diplomacy, defense/security diplomacy, cultural diplomacy and even climate diplomacy, between the Party's external activities and the diplomatic activities of the state and the people.
Without such general power, it is difficult for us to win on the diplomatic front.

Another factor creating power of diplomacy is the art of conducting business. It is said that diplomacy is the art of operating international relations. Without creative minds and flexibility in action, diplomacy cannot be successful. In this respect, President Ho Chi Minh is a shining example for all of us to follow.

Ky Duyen - Lan Anh - Phan Huynh