Rookie ambassador To Anh Dzung appears unruffled by the curious place his country occupies in Canada’s foreign relations universe.
Vietnam has been criticized for its human rights record, courted as a key trading partner and made a top recipient of aid by Canada’s government in the past few years.
Mr. To was appointed as the country’s representative in Ottawa in August, his first post as an ambassador, as the two countries marked 40 years of diplomatic relations, and set forth to boost bilateral relations and educate Canadians about the fast-growing country.
“It’s a very heavy task,” he said of his role overseeing the embassy, his voice betraying no sign of concern.
Boosting Canadian investment and educational ties are priorities, he said. The Canadian government seems more than willing to help; Canada has identified Vietnam as a priority country in its Global Markets Action Plan, and in its Comprehensive International Education Strategy. Vietnam is also a member of the Trans Pacific Partnership and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
While bilateral trade between the two countries topped $2.5 billion last year, the majority coming as Vietnamese imports to Canada, Canadian investment in Vietnam was only $51 million.
“I see a huge potential between our two countries, not only in the economic investment field, but also in other fields like science and technology, especially green, and IT” as well as education, agriculture, and the financial sector, he said.
Relations between the two countries are humming along. Foreign Minister John Baird visited Vietnam last March, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Vu Van Ninh visited Canada in December, and Vietnamese foreign minister and Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh is scheduled to visit at the end of May, he said.
However, Parliamentary secretary for the minister of foreign affairs Deepak Obhrai criticized the one-party socialist state’s human rights record in a February press release, expressing concern over “the recent pattern of arrests and harsh sentencing” of Vietnamese journalists and activists.
Mr. To said he understands the concerns over human rights, and that his country is still in the process of redeveloping after its civil war in the 1960s and 1970s.
“It is our history, we don’t forget about that, but we look forward to the future, and we keep in mind that we have to try to avoid war,” he said.
Canada is looked upon kindly by the people of Vietnam for its role in ending that war as a member of the International Commission of Control and Supervision, which oversaw the ceasefire between north and south Vietnam after a peace agreement was signed in 1973, he said.
Envoy, educator and enthusiast
Mr. To said one of the challenges of his job has been keeping Canadians informed about a country halfway around the world that is rarely covered in the media.
Despite holding a masters degree in international relations, he continues to school himself in the nuances of other countries and cultures, he said.
Mr. To studied for six years as an undergraduate in Kyiv. Regarding the current tensions between Ukraine, Russia and the West, he said diplomats and world leaders should be “very careful” about reacting without taking into account the history and culture of the players involved.
Vietnamese leaders understand “how we should deal with big neighbours,” he said.
Boosting educational ties between the two countries hits close to home for Mr. To, who has two children enrolled in Canadian schools. His daughter is a senior in high school, and he expects she will attend and finish university in Canada regardless of the fact that he will likely be posted elsewhere in two years.
His children are fond of Canada’s education system, he said, which provides more extra-curricular activities and less homework.
In his younger days Mr. To, who is turning 50 this year, was a football enthusiast, he said. More recently he turned to golf to fill his spare time, and managed to squeeze in a half-dozen games in Canada after arriving here in August. His golfing season finally closed when snow chased him off the course, he said.
Mr. To is currently preparing to host his country’s foreign minister and a delegation of businessmen, and working with the embassy to prepare a cultural night at the Museum of History, as well as business roundtables in Toronto and Vancouver, he said.
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