DURING his "jobs, jobs, jobs" trip to Asia last month, President Bush tried to coax Tokyo into opening Japanese markets to American exports. But if the goal is to help the United States economy, why is the administration ignoring another Asian market also shut tight to American goods?
Seventeen years after the fall of Saigon, US firms are still denied access to Vietnamese markets by our own government. Despite the protracted ground war in Vietnam and the trade embargo that has lasted even longer, the people of Vietnam love things American. Coca-Cola and Kodak film are brisk sellers in the country (black market smugglers sneak the products into the country from Singapore). The Vietnamese await the arrival of other American goods with great anticipation. It appears they will have to wai t a while longer, however. The Bush administration has done little to give the Vietnamese, or American corporations, any encouragement that current US policy will change soon.
Trade with any one country, especially Vietnam, is not going to solve our trade problems. Even a trade balance with Japan will not do that. However, the cumulative effect of increasing trade with as many countries as possible will create jobs and generate tax revenue for the government.
The president has evidently overlooked the jobs-creating potential of the Vietnamese market. Vietnam, being one of the poorest countries in the world, needs every kind of help US business could possibly provide. From basic infrastructure repairs on roads, bridges, seaports, and airports, to high-tech assistance in telecommunications, power stations, transportation, and the oil industry, US expertise is sorely needed and badly wanted.
For example, the Vietnamese will soon award a contract to build an $800 million oil refinery to assist its fledgling oil industry. Due to the embargo, no US firm was allowed to bid on this project. Of the six bids being considered, four are from Japanese companies. So while the president is trying to help US companies become more competitive against the Japanese on one hand, the embargo is a constraint against US businesses on the other.
THE main basis for the embargo is the MIA situation in Vietnam. But great progress, the administration reports, has been made on locating the remains of many military personnel missing in Vietnam. Also, a special Senate committee has been established to investigate all possible information on those missing in action. Cooperation from Hanoi on the search for remains has been excellent, according to those involved.
But still no movement has been made on lifting the embargo. The US doesn't have to embrace the Vietnamese government. Just allow US business representatives access to Vietnam to do what they do best. Thousands of American business people roaming around the country probably wouldn't hurt the search for answers to the MIA puzzle, either.
Others say we should have no trade with Vietnam as long as this remnant of communism remains in power. But by lifting the embargo now we would allow Vietnam to join the world community and we could have a positive effect on the economic, social, and political developments in the country.
This same argument is used by the Bush administration for continuing most-favored nation status for China. However, while one of the most repressive countries in the world continues to enjoy trade and diplomatic relations with the US, one of the poorest is allowed to languish. The disparate policy towards these communist neighbors cannot be easily explained.
To find out where many US businesses stand on the embargo, the president should discuss it with the several delegation members who joined him on the Asia trip. These executives should be consulted not only because of the companies they run but, more important, for the national trade councils and associations on which they sit. Membership in national trade groups give these men exposure to a wide range of industries that could provide insight the president might not otherwise receive from his economic sta ff.
Among those who traveled with the president were the chairmen of the US Association of South East Asian Nations Business Council, the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the president's Export Council, in addition to many others with important positions in US industry. These are the people who are closest to the pulse of US business. Their counsel should be requested to determine the benefits for US industries when the embargo is lifted.
Sadly, it appears that US policy toward Vietnam is entrenched in bitterness resulting from the loss of the war. There does not seem to be any political, strategic, or even ideological reason for the current policy. During last month's Pearl Harbor observance, the president said, "I feel no rancor" toward Japan. It appears, however, that there is enough rancor toward the Vietnamese within the policymaking centers of the government to prevent any movement on the embargo question.
If the president has no ill feelings toward the country that bombed Pearl Harbor, how can the punitive action of an embargo against Vietnam be justified 17 years after the last shot was fired?