Ten years after the two countries normalized relations, and three decades after the end of the Vietnam War, a leading Vietnamese official is visiting the United States for the first time. Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s trip holds out hope that the two countries will put the war behind them. The vocal protesters that have greeted Mr. Khai during his visit are a reminder that important issues remain on the bilateral agenda, but the opportunity for genuine reconciliation between the two former adversaries has never been better.
It took two decades for the U.S. to normalize relations with Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War. U.S. President Bill Clinton recognized that changes in Vietnam and East Asia made the restoration of official relations a necessity. Vietnam was opening to the outside world and the country was too big — it has a population of 82 million — and too ambitious to continue to be ignored by Washington. Two-way trade has virtually exploded from the $451 million in 1995, reaching $6.4 billion last year. The two countries concluded a bilateral trade agreement in 2001, and the U.S. has quickly become the primary commercial partner of one of Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economies.
On the eve of his visit, Mr. Khai said that 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War — in which 58,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese died — it was time “to put aside the past and look to the future and a better relationship between the two countries.” The U.S. appears ready to reciprocate. At their White House meeting, U.S. President George W. Bush backed Hanoi’s bid to join the World Trade Organization and said he would visit Vietnam in 2006. That trip, the second by a U.S. president — President Bill Clinton made the first one in 2000 — will coincide with the summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders to be held in Hanoi in late 2006.
Winning U.S. support for WTO membership topped Mr. Khai’s agenda. Although he has a spotless communist pedigree — he was a member of Vietnam’s revolutionary youth group in 1947, was a government planner during the Vietnam War, and was selected as prime minister by the communist-led National Assembly in 1997 — Mr. Khai is also a reformer. During his visit, he will ring the opening bell on the New York Stock Exchange, has stopped in Washington State to discuss Vietnam Airlines’ purchase of four Boeing airliners, and has visited with Microsoft’s Bill Gates.
Mr. Khai is especially eager to tap the sentiments of the 1 million Vietnamese Americans whom he called an “integral part of the nation and a very important resource.” The promise of economic opportunities in Vietnam outpaces reality, though. Despite the trade pact, there have been pernicious bilateral trade disputes, and investment continues to be dampened by obtrusive bureaucracy and corruption.
As in many developing countries, U.S. businesses complain about access to the finance market and protection of intellectual property rights. Some action will be required, as the U.S. Congress, ever sensitive to business interests, must vote on Vietnam’s eventual accession to the WTO.
There are other, more emotional items on the bilateral agenda. For Mr. Bush, religious freedom is a key issue. Last year, the U.S. government put Hanoi on a list of countries with which it has concerns about religious freedom. Some progress has been made since then, and Mr. Bush announced a new agreement that will make it easier for people to worship in Vietnam.
Equally important for the U.S. is the fate of servicemen missing during the long war. More than 500 U.S. servicemen have been accounted for since 1988, yet many more are still lost. Even more Vietnamese are unaccounted for. The cooperation required to search for those bodies has long provided the impetus for good relations between the two countries. Vietnam also seeks compensation for the thousands of victims of chemical weapons used during the war. It is estimated that 75 million liters of herbicides were used in Vietnam, and those chemicals produced horrific birth defects.
The emotional residue of the past is likely to be overwhelmed by the perceived payoff from practical cooperation today. Especially important is the agreement to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and transnational crime and in military-to-military exchanges. Engagement is seen by both countries as critical to their regional security strategies. Both governments are wary of China and see the other as a potential partner, and balancer, in the event of increasing tension with Beijing. That common concern may well provide the glue for U.S.-Vietnam relations in the years to come.
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