Vietnam and American What War – The Economist // Back to NEWS
Vietnam and America
Both sides strive to put the past behind them-and contain the rise of China
GEORGE BUSH visits Hanoi this weekend in the latest stage in a steady improvement in relations since America and Vietnam ended their war just over 30 years ago. Mr Bush’s welcome will be sincerely warm, especially after the pact the two countries signed in May, in which America backed Vietnam’s entry to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
There was one awkward hitch before the president’s visit: on November 13th the House of Representatives failed to pass a bill granting Vietnam “permanent normal trade relations”, without which its access to its biggest export market rests on the whim of the American president. The Republicans failed to get the two-thirds majority they needed to rush the bill through in time for Mr Bush’s visit. However, it should still pass (by a simple majority) in December, before the new, Democrat-con trolled Congress takes over next year.
Mr Bush is the second American president to visit Vietnam since the fall of Saigon and the second to have dodged fighting in the war. When Bill Clinton came in 2000, big crowds welcomed the man who in 1994 had scrapped America’s trade embargo and a year later restored diplomatic relations. It had taken two decades to start undoing the bitter legacy of the war, and for Vietnam’s communist government to emerge from its isolationist shell.
Now Vietnam is open for business. Its exports to America, worth $6.6 billion last year, should keep soaring, as should America’s $1.2 billion of exports to Vietnam. Coca-Cola and Citibank had already arrived by the time Mr Clinton visited. Harley-Davidson motorbikes will soon be roaring on Hanoi’s streets.
As co-operation on security and counter-terrorism has improved, American naval ships have, since 2003, been visiting Vietnam’s ports. But there are still some awkward issues to clear up. Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, a poisonous defoliant used by America in the war, are still seeking compensation. But the Washington Post this week quoted officials as saying the two countries had struck a deal in which America will pay towards removing residues of the chemical from Vietnamese soil. This month the two countries agreed to start the second phase of a joint programme to remove the huge amounts of wartime bombs and landmines that litter Vietnam, causing casualties even now. The two sides have also made progress on tracing the hundreds of Americans and the much larger numbers of Vietnamese listed as missing in action. On November 9th the Pentagon said the remains of an American airman shot down over North Vietnam had been identified.
America still describes Vietnam as “an authoritarian state” that abuses human rights. But in April it praised the country’s advances in several areas, such as releasing some political dissidents and signing an agreement on religious freedom. As a result, on November 13th, it removed Vietnam from a blacklist of countries that suppress religion. The same day, Vietnam sent back to America a Vietnamese-American democracy activist it had detained for 14 months for “terrorist activities”.
The Vietnamese feel that but for the wars of the mid-20th century, their country would be as rich as Taiwan and Singapore. Their desire to catch up by doing business with America and other former foes has helped dispel any lingering rancour. Tony Salzman, an American entrepreneur who has several businesses in Vietnam, says he has never sensed ·the slightest hostility in the 14 years he has been there. Around half Vietnam’s people were born after the war, he says, so for them it is something for the history books. America is naturally excited by a country of 83m people with low production costs, whose economy is growing almost as fast as China’s. There is also an unstated mutual interest in containing China’s rising influence in the region. In all, plenty of reasons to put the past behind them.