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Heads up – Embassy 34

Trading up

Born in 1964, Vu Quang Minh, Vietnam’s Ambassador to London, vividly recalls huddling in a makeshift bomb shelter as a child with his grandparents and watching awestruck as American bombs lit up the Hanoi night sky.

“I was too young to understand but I remember it was a very hard time. If anything, the experience is a reminder that diplomacy is the best way to solve conflict,” says Vu, an expert in economic diplomacy, whose career seems to prove that trade is a far better way to break down barriers.

As a graduate at Moscow’s Institute for International Relations, he observed the evolution of ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’, while back home, Vietnam was engaged in Doi Moi, a similar series of economic reforms which opened the country up.

Vu entered the foreign service at a time of profound change. “I seem to have the knack of being in the right place at the right time,” he smiles. Working on the Soviet desk in 1990, he witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequent lifting of the Bamboo Curtain.

With the artificial division in Southeast Asia removed, in 1995 Vietnam joined ASEAN. “It was a total breakthrough. Membership of ASEAN, in my opinion, was the most crucial diplomatic event for Vietnam in the last two or three decades,” says Vu, who found himself at the heart of the action on the newly-formed ASEAN National Secretariat from 1995-97.

Then from 1997-2002, Vu was appointed Personal Secretary to Nguyen Manh Cam who was both Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister during a period of intense diplomacy, which included land border negotiations with China, bilateral trade agreement (BTA) negotiations with the US,  and preparations for the historic visit of US President Bill Clinton in 2000.

“That was amazing,” he smiles. “He received such a warm welcome. It was good to see that the Vietnamese people did not bear any grudges against America.”

It wasn’t long after, in 2002, that Vu was posted to the US, where he witnessed the landmark state visit of Phan Van Khai. As the head of the newly-created economic section at the Embassy, Vu was managing the growing economic ties between the two nations when another US-Vietnamese war broke out – but this time it was a trade war over catfish and shrimps.

A novice at global trade disputes, Vietnam lost. “But I learned a lot!” says Vu.

He returned to Hanoi as Deputy Director-General of Economic Affairs where he helped put the final touches on Vietnam’s WTO accession package and in January 2007 the country formally joined the WTO club.

He took over as Director General of Multilateral Economic Cooperation (2007-08) and later DG of Economic Affairs (2008-10) at a challenging time for Vietnam as the country’s economy – still new to the workings of free markets – was exposed to the harsh winds of global competition.

“Our experience in ASEAN had given us confidence but we nevertheless had a fierce debate internally about whether our companies could survive. But I think we gained more than we lost,” reflects Vu.

The Ambassador finds himself in London, once again at a critical juncture, just as the UK and Vietnam have embarked on a strategic partnership, deepening ties in seven main areas, including political cooperation, global and regional issues, trade and investment, sustainable development, security and defence, education and science and promoting people-to-people links.

Politically, the recent elections in Vietnam have ushered in a new generation of young leaders with fresh ideas. While Vu doesn’t anticipate Vietnam moving towards a pluralistic political system, he says a revision of the constitution is on the cards.

On the economic front, the aim is to reach US$4 bn in two-way trade and to attract US$3bn of UK FDI by 2013. But it’s a challenging global economic climate, admits Vu, and even upheavals like the Arab Spring have affected Vietnam’s army of expatriate workers – including 10,000 construction workers in Libya alone – whose remittances will be sorely missed.

The second phase of the UK-Vietnam development strategy runs until 2016 and is already paying dividends with Vietnam rising up the ranks to Middle Income status. “But we don’t want to get stuck in the Middle Income trap!” cautions Vu. “So we are looking at a development plan beyond 2016 that may include public-private partnerships or technical exchange.”

Vu is a natural champion for increasing academic ties, having benefitted from overseas study in Russia, Ukraine and at both Princeton and Harvard. Up to 8,000 Vietnamese students now attend UK colleges and universities and they will form long-term people-to-people links, he says.

The launch of direct flights to Vietnam in December presents a huge opportunity to boost tourism, trade and cultural ties, adds the Ambassador, who is planning to host a series of events to celebrate the maiden voyage.

That leaves little free time for Ambassador Vu to learn golf (a goal he has set himself so he can play with his ASEAN colleagues) or to play his classical guitar. But he has found time to see his guitar hero, Eric Clapton, in concert – and perhaps the lyrics of the Slowhand were a reminder that diplomacy can work but It’s in the way that you use it.

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HE Mr Vu Quang Minh

“Membership of ASEAN, in my opinion, was the most crucial diplomatic event for Vietnam in the last two or three decades. It
was a total breakthrough.”

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