HONOLULU — An American warship steamed slowly up the Saigon River last week to mark the gradual forging of normal political, economic and even military relations between the United States and Vietnam 30 years after the end of their long and bloody war.

Moreover, a new spurt is in the making. Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Kai is planning to visit Washington this year, and U.S. President George W. Bush may travel to Vietnam next year. Vietnamese military officers and diplomats often attend the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, and more exchanges are expected.

Vietnam’s exports to the U.S. in 2004, at $5.3 billion, were five times greater than in 2001 and are headed further up. United Airlines has begun flying into Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, and Continental Airlines has applied for landing rights. Vietnam hopes to join the World Trade Organization this year.

The recently retired U.S. ambassador to Hanoi, Raymond Burghardt, says this is happening because “the leaders of Vietnam have decided that Vietnam should join the world.” In many cases, such as entering the WTO, Burghardt says, “they need a U.S. ticket to do that.”

Altogether, he says, “the level of dialogue is up” as American and Vietnamese leaders meet to discuss serious issues. Burghardt, who has become director of seminars at the East-West Center, a research institute in Honolulu, says earlier discussions rarely went beyond party lines.

Even so, he says, the U.S. and Vietnam are still constrained in dealing with each other. “The issue that impedes a growth in relations is human rights,” Burghardt says. “Vietnam is still a Leninist state,” with little freedom of speech or religion or assembly. Vietnam’s rulers fear an evolution into democracy and a market economy as that, he says, “inexorably eats away at the party’s control.”

On the U.S. side, “there’s a shallow constituency base” as many Vietnamese-Americans remain negative about Vietnam and oppose any moves that would favor the communist government there. In addition, U.S. veterans of the war are split, some for healing, others still bitter.

The evolution of U.S.-Vietnam ties stands in stark contrast to the hostility between the U.S. and another communist nation, North Korea. Both Vietnam and North Korea fought bitter wars with the U.S. and both lost their major patron in 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved.

After that, their paths diverged as the Vietnamese have cautiously sought to conduct their affairs with the U.S. according to international custom, while the North Koreans have regularly spewed venom on the U.S. and reinforced that by seeking nuclear weapons.

As the Soviet Union was collapsing, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker gave Hanoi a “road map” of moves that would lead to normal relations. In 1994, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, Adm. Charles Larson, became the first senior U.S. officer to visit Vietnam after the war.

The following year, the U.S. and Vietnam established diplomatic relations. Bipartisan support came from Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona and former prisoner of war in Vietnam, and Sen. John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and veteran of the war. Former President George H.W. Bush, a Republican and father of the current president, went to Vietnam on a private trip.

In 1997, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made an official visit to Vietnam as did President Bill Clinton in November 2000, just before he left office. A trade agreement in December 2001 set off the surge in trade. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld received Vietnamese Defense Minister Pham Van Tra in Washington in 2003.

Burghardt pointed to a high-level meeting in Hanoi in June 2003 during which Vietnamese leaders decided that better relations with the U.S. would be in their national interest. They were particularly worried, Burghardt says, about China’s growing power; Vietnamese often remind listeners that China occupied Vietnam for a thousand years until 944.

More recently, China attacked Vietnam in 1979 but was defeated by perhaps the world’s most experienced army then. Vietnamese continue to be wary of China’s economic and diplomatic offensive in Southeast Asia. Some Vietnamese have told Americans: “You are naive about China.”

Thus, the port call of the frigate USS Gary in Ho Chi Minh City, the third such visit in three years, was quietly welcomed. In contrast, the last U.S. vessel to enter a North Korean port was the surveillance ship Pueblo after the North Koreans seized it in international waters in 1968. Today that ship is displayed on the Taedong River near Pyongyang.

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