The visit to the United States of Phan Van Khai, prime minister of Vietnam, who is scheduled to meet with President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Tuesday, has been controversial, and not without reason.
But it could represent opportunity as well.
To many Vietnamese-Americans, Khai, who began his revolutionary activism in 1947 and was a North Vietnamese government planner during the Vietnam war, still represents the repressive regime they fled. And there are plenty of valid current concerns about the regime’s human rights record and authoritarian ways.
Vietnam says it shares concerns with the United States about terrorism, but it tends to use that term to describe domestic dissidents who in a more open regime would be part of the political process. It still bans or maintains unjustifiable controls on certain kinds of religious expression.
Yet Vietnam has also reduced some of the more stringent communist-era economic controls and its leaders have come to understand (albeit imperfectly) that economic progress requires more open markets and engagement with the global marketplace.
Since 2001, when the U.S. and Vietnam signed a bilateral trade agreement, trade with the U.S. has increased from $1.5 billion to $6.4 billion in 2004.
Khai will be bringing 81 businesspeople along. He plans to meet with Bill Gates and ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.
The message is clear. Vietnam is open for business.
One is reminded of Ronald Reagan’s admonition to “trust but verify.” And we would do well to insist government leaders in every country receive more verification than trust.
Vietnam would be more attractive, not only to foreign investors but to its residents, if it showed greater respect for private property, reduced restrictions on foreign involvement in financial services and improved protection of intellectual property.
Greater engagement, which the U.S. has already decided to pursue, could hasten such reforms, but there are no guarantees, and pressure from overseas Vietnamese will still be useful.