Trade talks bring Vietnam to America

Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai was welcomed at the White House Tuesday, in the first visit of its kind since 1957.

On his US tour this week, Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai has presided over the purchase of four Boeing jetliners. He's shaken the hand of Microsoft chief Bill Gates and conferred with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Tuesday was the visit's topper: He was ushered into the Oval Office for a meeting with President Bush himself.

So, what was the outcome of that war, again?

Thirty years after the end of American involvement in Vietnam, that long-ago conflict remains a divisive factor in US politics.

Vietnam itself isn't Switzerland: It allows little free speech, and religious expression has been severely curtailed. Some Vietnamese refugees in the US have bitterly protested Prime Minister Khai's presence.

But bit by bit, ties of trade and technology - even military training - are bringing once-bitter enemies together. Vietnam's youthful economy needs what the United States has to offer.

"In a sense, the US has kind of won," says Robert Buzzanco, a history professor and Vietnam expert at the University of Houston.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam were restored in 1995 under President Clinton. Since then, two-way trade has grown to about $6.4 billion a year. To the US, that's not much. But to Vietnam, the US is its top trading partner.

Khai, in fact, is scheduled to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange as part of his visit. What might the Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh make of such capitalistic behavior?

"We have a population of 80 million people, which means a huge market for American businesses," said Khai Tuesday.

At the White House, Khai and Mr. Bush talked about Vietnam's push to join the World Trade Organization, which the US supports. Bush praised the steps of the nominally communist nation toward economic progress, as well as recent promises of expanded religious freedom. He also thanked the Vietnamese for their continued cooperation on efforts to find the remains of US troops who died in the Vietnam War.

"It's very comforting to many families here in America to understand that the government is providing information to help close a sad chapter in their lives," said Bush, who announced he'll visit Vietnam next year.

Clearly, US-Vietnamese relations are entering a new era. The last time a high-ranking Vietnamese leader came to the White House, Dwight Eisenhower was president. That was 1957, when South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem made a US tour.

The changes that made the current rapprochement possible were largely economic ones. The Vietnamese have mostly abandoned the notion of a state-planned economy, replacing it with market-based policies and incentives for foreign investment. Among Vietnamese exports, shrimp and footwear have become common in the US.

But some human rights advocates and lawmakers in Congress think that any further improvement in relations should be linked to human rights improvements back in Vietnam.

While the government has promised more freedom of religious expression, the just-released Amnesty International annual human rights report charges that members of unauthorized denominations continue to face repression. Freedom of expression remains severely limited, says the report.

"The government of Vietnam has inflicted and continues to inflict terrible suffering on countless people," said Rep. Christopher Smith (R) of New Jersey, chairman of a House International Relations subcommittee on human rights, at a hearing on Monday.

Demonstrators have greeted Khai at some of his US stops. In Seattle, where he was signing the deal for four Boeing passenger jets, Khai was met by a crowd consisting mostly of expatriate Vietnamese shouting, "Down with communists!"

At such rallies, protesters often wave the old yellow-and-red flag of South Vietnam, which is banned in Vietnam itself.

The youths of Vietnam may idolize Mr. Gates, but when a newspaper printed the results of a poll naming him their favorite hero, the editor was sacked, notes Phu Nguyen, former president of the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California.

Mr. Nguyen, who came to America when he was 3, says he fears that Vietnam will move in the direction of China: economic success with no corresponding individual rights.

"There's often a misconception that the older folks are bitter and hold grudges. But the majority of people, including most young people, protest because of the lack of justice and freedom in Vietnam today," says Nguyen.

Roland Pham, an attorney in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, who moved to the US when he was 11, has similar worries about continued repression back in Vietnam. For that reason, he believes that Khai should be welcomed, but warily.

"I favor reform and democracy in Vietnam," he says. "But isolation doesn't help. It hasn't helped with respect to Iran, North Korea, or Cuba, so what makes people think isolation will compel the Vietnamese government to change its policies?"

Both of these Vietnamese-Americans ultimately toe a middle line between the ideological poles of their community. "There are some [Vietnamese-American] students that are in favor of opening Vietnam. There are some that have their parents' mind-set that says, 'Let's lock up Vietnam,' " says Nguyen. "I think somewhere in between is the way to go. Help Vietnam develop trade, but have transparency in regard to human rights."

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