A new chapter

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Hillary Clinton's back-to-back visits to Hanoi articulated the rising US commitment to US-Vietnam relations. Clinton's recent announcement "The US is back in Southeast Asia," struck a chord of surprise for many in the region.

In his farewell interview with Thanh Nien Weekly, departing US Ambassador Michael W. Michalak speaks broadly of the new cooperation between the two countries. The US has publicly opposed the damming of the Mekong River and Michalak articulates an emerging US position toward the Lower Mekong River Basin.

Michalak will leave Vietnam for his next assignment in the first week of January 2011.

Thanh Nien Weekly: How do you view your term as US Ambassador to Vietnam in the scope of your long career as a diplomat?

Michael W. Michalak: My experience as Ambassador to Vietnam has been one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences of my life, and certainly of my 30-plus years with the Department of State. Being able to play a role in moving beyond our painful past and building a strong partnership has been a tremendous honor.

What effects will the damming of the Mekong River in China, Laos and Cambodia have on the Mekong Delta?

During her visit to Hanoi (in October), Secretary of State Clinton discussed the potential impact of proposed dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River with her Lower Mekong Initiative partners in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The Secretary recommended a pause before major construction continues and said the US would sponsor a study of the issue. Hydropower development on the Mekong mainstream is an issue of concern, as recent studies show that even one dam could cause irreparable damage to the complex ecosystem of the Mekong River Basin and pose an immediate and long-term threat to the food security and livelihoods of millions. For Vietnam, upstream dams will reduce water and sediment flows, resulting in saltwater intrusion, soil erosion, and decreased soil fertility, threatening agriculture and aquaculture productivity. The Mekong Delta is Vietnam's "rice basket," and Vietnam is the world's number two rice exporter. This issue has consequences for global food security.


US Ambassador Michael W. Michalak

If these dams are built, how will they impact the livelihoods of those living in Vietnam's Mekong Delta and in other lower Mekong countries? How will the residents of the Mekong Delta survive if they can no longer make a living farming and fishing?

It is critical to address the livelihoods of the 20 million Mekong Delta residents in Vietnam, 85 percent of whom rely on agricultural activities. The Delta has a higher GDP than the national average"”10.2 perent growth in 2008, compared with 7-8 percent national growth. What's more, Delta rice production accounts for 60 percent of the country's total export turnover.

While some research is currently underway about adapting agricultural practices to address increased water salinity, for example, more is needed. The US's Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) addresses education and environment among its four pillars. The DRAGON (Delta Research and Global Observation Network) Institute at Can Tho University, jointly established by the US and Vietnamese governments in 2008, continues to research Delta ecosystems and sustainable river deltas in the context of climate change.

Do you have any suggestions to promote more effective cooperation between the members of the Mekong River Commission?

In 2009, the US joined with Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to launch the LMI. These four countries also make up the Mekong River Commission. The purpose of the LMI is to enhance cooperation on issues of regional importance.

One of the ways we have pursued this is through the sister-river partnership between the Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission. The Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission both play key roles in managing waterways that are vital to the livelihoods of millions of people. The sister-river partnership enables the two bodies to cooperate and share expertise and best practices in areas such as climate change adaptation, flood and drought management, hydropower impact assessment, water demand, and food security.

Data-sharing among the countries of the Mekong River Basin is key to finding sustainable ways to develop the basin. Last December, the US Geological Survey and Can Tho University brought together scientists and experts from throughout the region to share information on how climate change and human activities could impact the ecology and food security of the basin.

The US remains committed to forging fruitful, long-term ties to all four Mekong River Basin countries.

The recent visits of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton further strengthened the commitment of Vietnam and the US to ambitious cooperation in the areas of climate change, education, business, security and nuclear energy. Could you please give us more specific details regarding this cooperation?

The two visits by Secretary Clinton to Hanoi, less than four months apart, demonstrate the importance of the US-Vietnam relationship. In just 15 years, the scale of bilateral cooperation has increased dramatically in several areas, particularly in terms of trade, education and security.

During Secretary Clinton's visit, she witnessed the signing of two very significant commercial agreements"”between Vietnam Airlines and Boeing, and between Microsoft and the Ministry of Information and Communications.

Education has been another of my top priorities as Ambassador. And I'm very happy to say that in three years, the number of Vietnamese studying in the US has nearly tripled.

However, let me be clear: there is much work to be done. I agree with those Vietnamese who say that educational reform is key to taking Vietnam to the next developmental level, and the US looks forward to working with Vietnam as it takes the necessary, tough steps to strengthen its educational system.

Both Secretary of Defense Gates, who participated in October's ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus Summit, and Secretary of State Clinton reaffirmed the US government's interest in deepening security cooperation with Vietnam. Specifically, the US and Vietnam agreed to work bilaterally and through regional institutions such as ASEAN to address such challenges as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, search and rescue, maritime security, and peacekeeping.

Our two countries also agreed to deepen cooperation in military education and exchanges. It is an area that has developed at a deliberate pace, but one that has great potential and is very important to maintain peace, prosperity, and stability in the region.

On nuclear energy, the US and Vietnam concluded a general Memorandum of Understanding on civilian nuclear cooperation in March. We have not yet opened formal negotiations on the 123 agreement, but we look forward to doing so.

Climate change is an issue both the US and Vietnam take very seriously, which is why we established a joint working group to deal with this global threat. Vietnam is one of the countries that will be most severely impacted by rising sea levels caused by climate change, and we applaud it for its pro-active response.

What do you consider the most significant changes and improvements to the bilateral relationship during your term as US Ambassador to Vietnam?

I think the most significant progress in the bilateral relationship has been made in three areas: our trading partnership, educational exchanges, and security cooperation. Secretary Clinton, in fact, recently said the progress made in our relationship has been "breathtaking."

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