A flour­ish­ing re­la­tion­ship with Viet­nam

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - The writer is a mem­ber of the cen­tral com­mit­tee of the Com­mu­nist Party of Viet­nam and chair­man of the com­mit­tee’s Com­mis­sion for Ex­ter­nal Re­la­tions. BY HOANG BINH QUAN

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.

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