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Daniel Kritenbrink Appointed New U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam

New United States Ambassador to Vietnam Daniel Kritenbrink arriving at Noi Bai International Airport in Ha Noi on November 4, 2017. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Here in Da Nang, economic leaders from around the Asia-Pacific region are gathering for this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ summit hosted by the Vietnamese.  Established in 1989, APEC is a regional economic forum comprising 21 member states, including Australia, China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the United States, and Vietnam.

 

Just ahead of the summit, Daniel Kritenbrink, a Nebraska native, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on October 26 as the next U.S. ambassador to Vietnam.  Kritenbrink arrived in Hanoi on Saturday and will present a credential letter to Vietnamese State President Tran Dai Quang on Monday morning.  His first mission is to accompany U.S. President Donald Trump during his trip to the APEC summit.

Kritenbrink, 50, has been a State Department Foreign Service Officer since 1994, recently serving as Senior Director for Asian Affairs under former President Barack Obama’s National Security Council.  Prior to that assignment, he was Deputy Chief of Mission in Beijing, and also served at the U.S. embassies in Japan and Kuwait.  Kritenbrink studied political science at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and received a master’s degree from the University of Virginia.  Kritenbrink replaces outgoing U.S. Ambassador Ted Osius, who under Obama was responsible for warmer relations with the Vietnamese and participated in the lifting of a lethal weapons arms embargo by the U.S.

While it is still early days for foreign policy under the new U.S. administration, recent testimony of Kritenbrink at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearings on September 27 may provide some hints of future U.S. foreign policy in Vietnam, which appears to be similar to that of the previous administration:

“Our goal remains to advance American interests across the board and support the development of a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam that contributes to international security, engages in mutually beneficial trade, and respects human rights and the rule of law.”

Regional security

At his testimony, Kritenbrink first pledge was to “strengthen Vietnam’s maritime security capabilities” in the disputed South China Sea, calling the region “vital to our respective security and commercial interests as Asia-Pacific nations.”  To this end, he also encouraged Vietnam to continue its active role within ASEAN.

Trade and investment

Despite the U.S. pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, Kritenbrink stressed the importance of trade and investment with Vietnam, noting Vietnam was America’s fastest growing export market.  He called for Vietnam to improve labor and environmental standards, transparency for state-owned enterprises, and intellectual property protection, leaving the door open for negotiation on a new U.S. bilateral trade agreement with Vietnam.  

Human rights

While regional security and trade and investment may be higher priorities, Kritenbrink did not shy away from listing human rights as “a top priority for the United States.”  While noting “some progress” on human rights and religious freedom, Kritenbrink called the trend over the past 18 months of increased arrests, convictions, and harsh sentences of activists as “deeply troubling” and called further progress on human rights critical for Vietnam to reach its fullest potential.

People-to-people ties

The new ambassador also noted that Vietnam is in the top six source countries for foreign students studying in the U.S. and Vietnamese students contributed some $700 million to the U.S. economy in 2015.  He also highlighted the new Peace Corps program and Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) – to which the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, was recently appointed as vice president.

Humanitarian and war legacy issues

Lastly, Kritenbrink called for the full accounting of U.S. military personnel missing in action from the Vietnam War “our solemn obligation”, while noting the U.S. has contributed $103 million to deal with unexploded ordnance and $115 million toward the remediation of dioxin contamination in Da Nang.

While Kritenbrink may have had limited exposure to Vietnam as a diplomat (three official trips and the overseeing of the negotiation of two bilateral Joint Statements with Vietnam in 2015 and 2016), his time as deputy chief of mission in China will bring much-needed perspective to his new role in Vietnam.

As Kritenbrink duly noted in his testimony, young Vietnamese hold overwhelmingly positive views of the United States, and with a booming economy (growing between 6-7 percent), Vietnam and the U.S. could become strong partners in the region.  Of course, many Vietnamese will be closely watching the speech (and any tweets) from U.S. President Donald Trump on his vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” during his visit this week to Da Nang.  His comments could signal further interest in Vietnam and the region’s affairs –  something some foreign policy analysts (and Vietnamese) fear is dwindling over U.S. domestic challenges and growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.  

 

Author

Gary Sands
Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666

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