Trading Instead of Invading

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Washington is Humming a Different Tune in Vietnam: Trading — Not Invading

by Leon Hadar by Leon Hadar

Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai is not a democratic leader – and he doesn’t play one on Fox-News Television. If a “[pick favorite color] Revolution” were to take place in the streets of Hanoi, one could expect that PM Khai and the other Communist party bosses would prove to be quite ruthless in suppressing the democratic uprising. In fact, in Mr. Phan’s Vietnam, there has been very little room for free speech, religious expression has been curtailed, and no open democratic election is expected to take place there any time soon.

Yet, the Vietnamese PM — whose Communist party had led the war against the United States a few decades ago — has been welcomed with open arms by America’s political and business leaders last week. He also met with US President George W Bush in the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday, even as Vietnamese-Americans were holding demonstrations against Mr. Phan’s visit to Washington and holding up signs demanding greater religious freedom in the communist country.

Mr. Phan also shook hands with Microsoft head Bill Gates, talked with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the strengthening of his country’s military ties with the United States, and signed an agreement to purchase four Boeing jetliners.

Moreover, in a clear sign that Washington is intent on helping Vietnam integrate into the global economy, President Bush told Mr. Phan that he supported Vietnam’s bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Vietnam is hoping to join the WTO at the trade organization’s next ministerial meeting in December in Hong Kong. And the US Congress would have to vote on any deal to allow Vietnam to join the WTO, as it did with China in 2000.

Most American pundits have commented on the historic significance of the visit, noting that the Bush-Phan meeting marked 10 years since diplomatic ties resumed between the two former foes and that it was the first visit by a Vietnamese prime minister since the Vietnam war ended in US defeat 30 years ago.

Bush said he would visit Vietnam in 2006 when it hosts the annual summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.

But the significance of the expanding ties between the United States and Vietnam goes much more beyond the bilateral ties between the two former enemies, especially against the backdrop of the Bush Administration’s Crusade for Democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere.

On the one hand, when it came to dealing with Saddam Hussein’s Iran, the Ayatollahs’ Iran, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, and Fidel Castro’s Cuba, President Bush and his aides have insisted that economic sanctions, diplomatic isolation and the use of military power ("regime change") — an approach that can be described as US "destructive disengagement" towards these governments — are the only way to transform totalitarian systems and authoritarian regimes into democracies and free market economies.

On the other hand, when it comes to Communist-ruled Vietnam — it is less democratic than Iran and has less religious freedom than Saddam Hussein permitted in Iraq — President Bush has been pursuing a policy of "constructive engagement" based on the notion that expanding diplomatic and economic ties with an authoritarian government is the most effective way to help move it in the direction free markets and democracy.

Diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam were restored in 1995 under President Clinton. Since then, two-way trade has risen to US$6.4 billion in 2004 from US$451 million in 1995. After a bilateral trade pact in 2001, the United States has become Vietnam’s key trade partner.

At the same time, Vietnam has taken small steps towards opening its economy and political system and has made commitments to implement new legislation on religious practice, allow churches to open, and end the detention of religious leaders.

And according to opinion polls, most Vietnamese — especially the young people — admire the American culture and business, leading one analyst to suggest half-jokingly that perhaps the US may have ended up winning the Vietnam War after all.

What is almost certain is that diplomatic and economic engagement with Vietnam has made it more likely that the Americans — and not the Communists — are now winning the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people, while American businesses make money and American consumers have access to cheap products.

In short, it’s a cost-effective strategy. Compare it to the Crusade for Democracy in Mesopotamia where free markets and elections have been introduced through the barrel of gun.

That seems to be a failed strategy that once upon a time was tried in another country called Vietnam.

Leon Hadar [send him mail] is Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore and the author of the forthcoming Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan).

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