Breakfast with Nguyen Phuong Nga, UN Ambassador of Vietnam
A conversation with Ambassador Nga on media, democracy, and foreign policy challenges in Vietnam
Marc Masson, firstname.lastname@example.org
About Ambassador Nguyen Phuong Nga
Ambassador Nguyen Phuong Nga became the Permanent Representative of Vietnam to the United Nations in November 2014. Before coming to New York, she was the first woman to serve as Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam (2011–2014) and served in various positions at the Vietnamese Embassies in Thailand, Belgium, and Luxembourg. She has also worked at the Mission of Viet Nam to the European Union from 2004 to 2005. In addition to Vietnamese, Ambassador Nga speaks English, French, and Russian.
On November 15th, members of the Cornell International Affairs Society (CIAS) had breakfast with H.E. Nguyen Phuong Nga, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of Viet Nam to the United Nations. Ambassador Nga opened the discussion by describing the Vietnamese perspective on the tumultuous relationship between the United States and Vietnam, explaining that many “missed opportunities” led to conflict between the two countries in the past but that Vietnam has always been open to working closely with the United States. She emphasized that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, and the subsequent termination of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement that President Obama, in no way changed this outlook.
She then opened up the floor for questions. Two in particular stood out, touching on controversial but critically important subjects. The first was on freedom of the press in Vietnam, questioning its existence in light of the arrest of multiple journalists in the country. According to Freedom House, an American non-profit organization that evaluates freedom of the press in many countries around the world:
“Vietnam’s media environment is one of the harshest in Asia. Authorities continued to employ both legal mechanisms and physical harassment to punish and intimidate critical reporters in 2015, and discussed passing tougher restrictions on the rights of media professionals and outlets.” 
Ambassador Nga defended her country’s policies, explaining that those reporters who were arrested in her country were charged with violating the country’s laws, not for disagreeing with the government. They were treated as anyone else who commits a crime.
The second question was on the geopolitical implications of the Philippines rapprochement to China in relation to the South China Sea dispute, and specifically Vietnam’s stance on this new development. Filipino President Duterte famously announced his country’s economic and military “separation” from the United States in October,  and in November backed a new world order led by China and Russia.  Meanwhile, Vietnam and the Philippines are parties to a dispute with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea, a dispute that has been intensified by China’s creation of artificial islands in the region to cement its claim. In July 2016, an international court of arbitration based in the Netherlands ruled against China in a case brought forth by the Philippines to contest China’s claims in the region, although this ruling is not enforceable.  Vietnam may find its claims in the region weakened if the Philippines drops its claims to establish a better relationship with China. In response to this question, Ambassador Nga cited that Vietnam is a friend to both the Philippines and China, and sees no issue in the two countries coming closer together. She likened the situation to two friends becoming better friends, although time will tell if the geopolitical dynamics of international relations can be modeled in this way.
This opportunity was made possible by Voices on Vietnam — a semi-annual guest-speaker program at Cornell University organized by faculty and graduate students interested in bringing to the fore the Vietnamese perspective on US-Vietnam relations. CIAO and CIAS are extremely thankful for including this breakfast in H.E. the Ambassador’s visit to Cornell University. Special thanks also to Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University.
1 “Vietnam | Freedom of the Press 2016.” Freedom House. 2016. Accessed December 23, 2016. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2016/vietnam.
2 Hunt, Katie, Matt Rivers, and Catherine E. Shoichet. “Philippines: Did Duterte’s China gamble pay off?” CNN. October 20, 2016. Accessed December 23, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/20/asia/china-philippines-duterte-visit/.
3 Peel, Michael. “Philippines’ Duterte backs ‘new order’ led by China and Russia.” Financial Times. November 17, 2016. Accessed December 23, 2016. https://www.ft.com/content/5e51dd92-acaf-11e6-9cb3-bb8207902122.
4 The South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of the Philippines V. The People’s Republic of China) (Permanent Court of Arbitration July 12, 2016). https://pca-cpa.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/175/2016/07/PH-CN-20160712- Press-Release-No-11-English.pdf.