Washington is Humming a Different Tune in Vietnam: Trading – Not
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
© 2005 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved. Reprinted with
permission of the author.