Building trade, social capital and security through culture in Asia

Oi met with Karen Lanyon, the Australian Consul-General, to discuss Vietnamese-Australian relations and the ongoing development of Vietnam. Lanyon was posted to Ho Chi Minh City in January 2016, returning to Southeast Asia following a three-year period spent in Los Angeles as Consul-General. Most of Lanyon’s long career, however, has been spent in Southeast Asia where she held positions in both embassies and consulates in Singapore, Cambodia and Indonesia. Lanyon’s career in diplomacy has been extensive and varied; her past experience includes working on UN Environmental Sustainable Development issues and heading up the Africa branch of the Public Diplomacy Branch in Canberra. Lanyon has many aspirations that she hopes to achieve during her time as Consul-General in Ho Chi Minh City. She aims to further strengthen both the business relationship and bilateral partnership between Australia and Vietnam, to improve the people to people links between Australians and the Vietnamese, and have Australian produce well-integrated into the Vietnamese market.

Had you always wanted to work in government?

Absolutely, when I was in primary school I told my mother that I wanted to be president of the world. I soon found out that wasn’t a job. I then decided that I wanted to join the United Nations. Therefore, from a very young age I knew that I wanted to join diplomacy and do this type of job. I was born and raised in Sydney and went to school at the Australian National University in Western Canberra. At the time it was the best international political school in Australia and a good way to get into the Foreign Service in Canberra. International Law and International Politics were my majors. Following that, Foreign Affairs and Trade picked me up and paid for me to finish my law school, which was fantastic. I went from university straight into government working in international trade and then I went into foreign affairs six months after I joined the government. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

How does working in Vietnam compare to your previous posting in Los Angeles?

It’s very different from Los Angeles. But most of my career has been spent in Southeast Asia so coming to Vietnam after being in Los Angeles is like coming home. Los Angeles was a wonderful posting and a fantastic experience. We worked on some very significant things there. One of the biggest promotions in Australia is Good Day USA, and it was a privilege to work on that. California is the world’s eighth largest economy, so it’s a fairly central spot. But when I was asked what my preferred posting would be after the US, I said Vietnam. There’s just so much happening here, it’s such an exciting place to be and it’s a great partner for Australia. I finished in Los Angeles in November last year and was posted to Vietnam, which was my number one dream job. So I am truly happy and blessed to be here.

Is it difficult to balance your career and your personal life in terms of different postings?

Our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been very ahead of the curve in terms of promoting people who are posted together. For decades now, we have posted couples of the same-sex, so we are ahead of the curve in relation to that. Plus, there are a lot of couples who both work in the department. If you are both working in the same area, you understand the pressures and how it works, it is much easier. But when we went to Los Angeles my husband decided that he did not want to work anymore. He’s no longer working for the department but he knows the lie of the land. So having a partner that is that supportive works very well. Plus, you see all the people that have taken their children with them to postings around the world. Kids that grow up in an international environment grow up as great world citizens. They have a much better world view, they understand the world more and they are not so insular. So I think it’s a good way to bring up kids.

How is the Australian-Vietnamese relationship?

I arrived in January so I’m still very new to the relationship. We’ve had a very strong bilateral relationship with Vietnam for a very long time now. Australians and Vietnamese get on very well; we have a lot of similarities, such as our sense of humor. There’s a lot of good will for Australians in Vietnam. We came in early, recognized the government, and we’ve been working very hard with our development assistance programs over the past decades. Every year between 16,000 and 20,000 Vietnamese go through tertiary and secondary education in Australia. They return to Vietnam knowing and understanding Australia well, so our alumni are great assets for us. There’s also a large Australian-Vietnamese population. If you count second generation, there’s anywhere up to 500,000 people of Vietnamese descent in Australia. We have also launched the new Colombo plan, in which Australian students come to Vietnam so we get to know one another’s cultures and appreciate one another a bit more. So it’s in a very good place, our relationship, at the moment.

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Are there any gaps in the relationship? And if so, how do you plan to bridge those?

We are working on three main pillars for the next year, for the purpose of our relationship. Broadly they are security, innovation and economic development. Security is very broad, it includes food security, looking after our borders, fighting transnational crime together, etc. And there’s always more work you can do in that regard; we are always going to be fighting human and drug trafficking. Our Australian Federal Police are here working with the Vietnamese police, so there is a really good partnership there.

Innovation is a new one and I think we probably haven’t done as well as we could have done in the past, but it’s a really exciting new area to work together in. Innovation could be, for example, Australian companies coming here and using Australian technology to help Vietnam get to where they want to be in areas like border management and agriculture.

Economic development is important because a strong, secure and economically prosperous Vietnam is very good for Australia. It’s a win-win situation. And we’re working hard on things like human resource development for human capital and education is a big part of that, but a big focus for us in the next year is gender equity. We need to ensure that the women and girls of Vietnam are not precluded from taking part in the economic development of Vietnam and that they have equal rights, equal access to education and to business opportunities. So for me as a female consul general, the first one in a while, that is a very important goal for me.

In particular, what do you do to promote women’s rights and equality?

We work with the Women’s Union and other organizations in Vietnam to encourage women entrepreneurs, helping them to get into business and take part in business. There is a whole raft of programs that we are going to address over the next 12 months or so. I recently went to a wonderful event that was supported by the Australian aid program. The event was a fashion parade celebrating UN’s People with Disabilities Day. It was actually organized by a Vietnamese woman with quite a severe disability herself, who went to Flinders University in South Australia on a scholarship. We had 30 models all of various disabilities, modeling clothes from two Vietnamese and one international designer. So this was a great celebration of disabilities.

Women with disabilities in Vietnam have an absolutely terrible time and do not have equal rights. For a very long time, women with disabilities in both Australia and Vietnam have been told that they’re not beautiful, that they will never marry, that they won’t have the same opportunities in business or personal relationships as anyone else. So the fashion parade was all about accepting beauty as being diversity and difference. It was such a fantastic and moving event. So we’re very proud to support that. And that’s just one of the examples of what we do.

How important is the role of women is in politics? And are women fairly represented in politics in both Australia and Vietnam?

I think that there’s always room for improvement in both countries. In Australia, our statistics are not as good as they should be in terms of women leadership. Vietnam does have very strong women in the National Assembly, but also in business. I have found so many female leaders in business in Vietnam who are doing fantastic jobs. But I think in both countries, there is absolutely room for improvement. There should be more women up there as role models for young girls, women as heads of government organizations, in our national assemblies, in our parliaments, etc. The fight is not yet over, but we’ve come a long way. In terms of equal pay, I’m very lucky that I work in a department that is a meritocracy and we get equal pay with men, but that is not the same in the private sector. I don’t think you can sit back and say the job is done—we’ve still got a long way to go.

What important milestones has Australia made in Vietnam recently?

We have been working on TPP (Trans Pacific Pact), and have been working a lot with the Vietnamese government in this regard; we’re both very pro-free trade. Our development assistance programs in Vietnam are also very broad ranging. We will be investing approximately USD83 million this year in development assistance. One of the big projects, which will be completed and launched in around November, is the opening of the Can Tho Bridge. We actually opened a bridge 11 years ago, and we’re building another bridge now because it makes such a difference to the economy in the Mekong. People are able to get their goods to market and kids can get to school. It just makes a fundamental change to their lives.

Another big focus for us and Vietnam is APEC, as APEC will be here in Vietnam next year. APEC’s visit is an opportunity for the Vietnamese government to showcase what they have to offer. A number of ministers, high level visitors and trade delegations will be coming over. What we would like to do as a consulate is to ensure that we do not waste the opportunity to promote greater relationships with Vietnam and to create business linkages with Vietnam. The other thing we are focusing on from a national point of view is the promotion of Australian food and wine in Vietnam. In April, we hosted an event called “Taste of Australia.” Its aim was to promote Australian food and beverages in Vietnam, which are clean, safe and organic; products which the Vietnamese market wants. The Vietnamese want food of which its origin is known, food that is safe for their families but that is also sustainable and healthy. Australia can provide that sort of product.

Luke Nguyen, who is a celebrity chef in Australia of Vietnamese descent, is the face of Taste of Australia. It’s a national program, and it’s going to be hosted in Hanoi, Danang and Ho Chi Minh City. There will be a whole series of things going on, including culinary competitions where Vietnamese students have a chance to win a scholarship to study in culinary schools in Australia. There will also be wine consumer events introducing the Vietnamese market to Australian wine. This year we are expanding it to include areas other than just food and wine: music, fashion, among others.

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How important would you say the private sector is in developing Vietnam? Have any Australian projects stemmed from this need to engage with the private sector?

I can see the relationship between Vietnam and Australia changing very quickly from one of donor to one of equal economic partners. And I think that really needs to happen. Because as Vietnam gets stronger and has so much potential, they will move out of aid mode. Economic development is going ahead so fast that it will soon be an equal partnership. There are many Australian companies here now in a variety of fields, from IT to the agriculture business, to logistics. There are also many Vietnamese companies looking at Australia, considering more partnerships and investments. So I think that is going to be crucial for the future bilateral relationship; it has to come from the private sector. And we can help with projects like Taste of Australia; we’re helping Australian companies to have more access to this market and ensuring that the Vietnamese market understands what Australia has to offer.

What are your thoughts on recent international developments such as BREXIT and president-elect Donald Trump?

I think you have to accept the world for what it is within those parameters. There’s no way that Australia should tell any country what they should and should not be doing. But as a diplomat, you have to accept the world that you live in. Things happen that you wouldn’t expect to happen, and you just have to adjust and work out how you can move forward from there.

What would you ultimately like to achieve in your time here?

I would like to walk away from the next four years having a stronger business relationship with Vietnam. I would like to leave a legacy of more Australian food and wine in Vietnam, more interaction with the Vietnamese at a people to people level, and the Vietnamese becoming more aware of what Australia has to offer. And I would also like to see the cliché images we have about each other changed. You ask a Vietnamese person about Australia and they say kangaroo, and I’d like it to be a little bit more than kangaroo. And when you ask people in Australia what they think of Vietnam, they say war. And that is not the Vietnam of today. The Vietnam of today is peaceful, prosperous and full of people wanting to work together. I’d like Australians to see Vietnam as a great place to come on holiday, a great place to study and to do business. And I’d like Vietnamese people to see that Australia isn’t just about kangaroos, there’s a lot more to it. I’d like to walk away with those clichéd views of each other broken down a bit and understand people a bit more. A more layered image of each other would be fantastic, so I’d be very happy if that was the legacy that I left behind.

IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN