July 9, 2018
This July marks 25 years since Israel and Vietnam officially established diplomatic relations. In just two-and-a-half decades, Israel and Vietnam have rapidly developed their bilateral relationship in such fields as agriculture, information technology, biotech, defense, cultural exchanges, and tourism. In celebration of this important milestone, Daniel Silver, Assistant Director of AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute, interviewed H.E. Nadav Eshcar, Israeli Ambassador to Vietnam, on the past 25 years of relations and what the future holds.
How would you summarize the Israel-Vietnam relationship over the past 25 years and where have you seen the greatest amount of cooperation?
Following the end of the Cold War and the Madrid Conference for peace in the Middle East, Israel saw a wave of renewed diplomatic relations. First, with the Soviet Union, in its very last days in 1991, followed by China and India in January 1992. Only a year and half later, the Vietnamese followed, and for quite a number of years were rather reserved in their contact with Israel. Their traditional relations with Yasser Arafat and the Fatah movement were probably one of the reasons for that approach. Significant change occurred about a decade ago as Vietnam began to rapidly develop. Suddenly, doors started to open. A first-ever presidential visit to Vietnam by the late Shimon Peres in 2011 is said to have really changed the mindset of top Vietnamese leaders towards Israel and the huge potential of maintaining active relations with Israel. Since that visit, Israel-Vietnam ties have been getting stronger and stronger and cooperation in a variety of fields continues to grow, namely in agrotechnology, education, innovation, start-up knowledge sharing, and even defense. Politically, the presidential visit by Reuven “Ruvi” Rivlin last year, which was celebrated throughout local media, demonstrated this change in approach.
In a recent interview, you noted that both Israel and Vietnam are moving forward on the signing of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Where are you today with those negotiations? How will an FTA improve Israel-Vietnam relations?
Negotiation teams from both sides have just concluded the fifth round of talks in Israel where significant progress was made, and negotiations are steadily moving ahead. As both economies are no longer competing but complementing one another, no significant obstacles are expected as negotiations move forward. Naturally, the goal for both sides in an agreement is to enable better business conditions for both countries. Vietnam is a large-scale exporter of food and agricultural products primarily focused on fish, meat, rice, fruit, and spices, and Israel is a natural partner, providing technologies that will improve both the quality and quantity of Vietnamese goods. This type of negotiation takes time and there is a myriad of small details to parse out, but it is my belief that the conclusion of negotiations is near.
During President Rivlin’s historic visit to Vietnam in 2017, he asked President Quang to be more supportive of the Jewish state in international institutions like UNESCO, and to reconsider his country’s voting pattern concerning Israel. Have you seen any progress since that visit? What steps would Israel like to see Vietnam take over the coming years?
The multilateral arena is very challenging for Israel, and Vietnam traditionally shows a negative record on our issues. Taking its history into consideration, and its being a devoted Non-Aligned member state, one should not be too surprised by this. Having said that, we have seen in recent years some positive changes among other Asian nations' voting records, some of which are also traditional Non-Aligned member states. It is definitely my expectation that we will see shifts in Vietnam voting as well; we are trying to constantly persuade them, and I hope that our efforts will eventually bear fruit.
AJC, through its Asia Pacific Institute (API), has been deeply committed to strengthening its relationship with Vietnam and is keen to work together on areas of mutual concern. In fact, AJC brought a high-level leadership delegation to Vietnam in 2016 and maintains close ties with Vietnamese officials across the United States and in Israel. From your perspective, how can AJC continue to support efforts to strengthen this important bilateral relationship?
I believe that AJC can help a lot. Delegations of young Vietnamese leaders visiting Israel is one way of promoting Israel’s positive image and creating a better understanding of Israelis. I think that investment in the long run, and especially with the younger generation, is highly important and creates those shifts, which I previously mentioned. Keeping contacts with the current Vietnamese leadership is also important and can be used as another channel to their hearts and minds. Another aspect, which I find as potentially fantastic for pushing relations further, is to have more promising students coming from Vietnam to study at Israeli universities. The Vietnamese government has a list of high-quality universities around the world where they encourage and subsidize students to study. Surprisingly, there are no Israeli universities on that list. I think AJC can help facilitate that as well.
Over the course of your tenure as Ambassador to Vietnam, what are your goals and aspirations for the immediate and long-term future of the Israel-Vietnam relationship?
In the short run, I put a lot of emphasis on the current occasion of the 25th anniversary of Israel-Vietnam diplomatic relations, using this meaningful date to celebrate the positive image of Israel in Vietnam. This image, I believe, acts as an excellent platform for economic as well as political cooperation. A significant step for the relationship which I hope to see in the medium run is a state visit to Israel by the Vietnamese Prime Minister or President. Such a visit has not happened yet. Combining that with the realization of an FTA agreement will be a great leap forward for the Israel-Vietnam relationship. In the meantime, I am working to extend the fields of collaboration further, trying to advance cooperation on health, water, and tourism. Israeli tourists are already discovering Vietnam, and I wish to also see growing numbers of Vietnamese tourists visiting Israel. I genuinely believe that Vietnam is one of the countries for which there is major potential for a real strategic partnership.
Ambassador Nadav Eshcar joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 2001. Prior to becoming Ambassador of Israel to Vietnam in 2017, he held positions in Jerusalem, Beijing, and Warsaw.