A flourishing relationship with Vietnam
Fewnations have changed the course of their relationship as profoundly in as little time as Vietnam and the United States have. This week, the official U.S. visit of Nguyen Phu Trong, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, will mark yet another milestone in the relations between our countries.
Over the past 20 years, we have progressed from an embargo to fuller diplomatic relations, a bilateral trade agreement and a comprehensive partnership. Now the visit by the general secretary at the invitation of the Obama administration signals U.S. respect for Vietnam’s choice of political regime. To be sure, Vietnam’s political system does not mirror that of the United States, but in important ways we seek to move in the same direction — a market economy, stronger investor protections, and peace and stability in international affairs. Strong partners — and good friends — are not necessarily those who are most alike but those who can accept each other as they are and have a frank dialogue about their differences.
Those differences are not core elements. When President Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, he quoted from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. That historic moment could have been the beginning of a positive relationship with the United States. Unfortunately, history took a different path.
But seven decades later, in the spirit of shelving the past, looking to the future, weare back on track with Ho’s vision: two nations, proud and independent, working as partners wherever common interest suggests.
The most substantial area of our common interest is the economy. Starting from virtually no exchange until the mid-1990s, trade between our countries has grown to impressive levels, rising from $451 million in 1995 to some $35 billion in 2014. U.S. consumers benefit from the many products that are made efficiently and cheaply in Vietnam. Contrary to common assumptions, this does not harm the U.S. job market; it only replaces imports from other Asian countries. In return, Vietnamese consumers earn the income they need to buy U.S. products. American cellphones are in millions of pockets, and Boeing sells aircraft to a multitude of new airlines. It is clear that our trade relationship is not a zero-sum game. We both win.
Of course, our relationship is not just about doing business. Our security cooperation has improved, and the Obama administration has partially lifted the U.S. embargo on the sale of lethal arms. Vietnam and the United States share a common goal of peace and stability in the region. Both our governments believe in the settlement of disputes by peaceful means through negotiations, on the basis of international law, and the respect for freedom of navigation in international waters. As a result, we are natural partners when it comes to promoting stability in East Asia.
The general secretary’s visit underlines these achievements of bilateral relations, but more important, it is a milestone that can help usher in more positive changes. With or without a prompt conclusion of the negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — which Vietnam strongly supports — we invite more U.S. investment. We want the United States to become the top investor in Vietnam, because U.S. investors are involved in the industries that represent the future: business services and technology. Vietnam is an eager market for these industries of the 21st century.
Washington should finally grant market-economy status to Vietnam. Our economy is no less open than those of some European countries, and where we still have problems, such as with stateowned enterprises, we are working diligently to make the necessary — and sometimes painful — reforms.
And then there are humanitarian issues. Vietnam has been so active in assisting the U.S. military with its efforts to account for those missing in action from the war that U.S. veterans groups are today among our strongest supporters. But thousands of Vietnamese still suffer from the lingering effects of Agent Orange and bombs and mines left over from the war. For Vietnam — both the people and the government— a responsible gesture by the United States to help heal this war wound would go quite far.
There is no doubt that Hanoi and Washington will not suddenly fully agree on each other’s view of good government. But by inviting a Communist Party general secretary, a position that has no equivalent in the American system of governance, Washington has shown a fuller respect for Vietnam’s political regime. We look to the United States for a lot of things: cooperation in education, science and technology, investment, markets, health care and culture. As long as we have mutual respect, understanding and sincere dialogue, our relationship can only continue to flourish.