Van Khai heading toward USA
Vietnamese prime minister Phan Van Khai disclosed
during his visit to Australia and New Zealand in early May 2005 that he
would pay an official visit to the US in June. Later, US
Under-Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick visiting Hanoi, confirmed the trip. Further
confirmation by Vietnam foreign affairs ministry’s spokesman and the US State
Department set prime minister Phan Van Khai’ s visit from June 19 to June 25,
2005 and he is scheduled to meet with President Bush on June 21, 2005.
Prime minister Khai ’s planned visit
reminds the Vietnamese people of a humorous folk tale at the end of the 1980s,
following the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) advocating economic openness as
their only survival option. But open to where and to whom?
The tale went on: before his death, Le Duan, the late general
secretary of the VCP had a dream in which he saw a horse standing on the back
of a tortoise. The next morning he ordered the Politburo to meet and invite a
dream analyst over who explained that the horse and the tortoise meant “Ma
Quy”, implying, through a game of words popular to the Vietnamese, “My Qua” or
“Americans returning.” The solution, therefore, would be to ask the Americans
to return. Le Duan said, “The Americans are a superpower defeated by us and their
pride would prevent them from coming back.” The following night, he dreamed
again, this time he saw the tortoise sitting on the back of the horse. The dream
analyst, reconvened, said: “It’s very simple! The position is reversed, which
means ‘Quy Ma’, implying ‘Qua My’ or ‘going to America.’ We have to go to the United States to seek help.”
The coming visit at the end
of this month by prime minister Khai seems a heavenly realization
of the dream. But what kind of help Vietnam needs from the US?
Two outstanding issues between the two countries are bilateral
trade and security. Other matters such as the lawsuit over sea products, WTO
membership… are not critical enough for an aid-begging visit. To become a WTO
member, Vietnam needs to satisfy in advance a
number of demands like passing necessary laws for trade regulations, before
seeking a US helping hand.
The bilateral trade between the US and Vietnam has been making progress as
expected. From January 1, 2001, the effective date of the bilateral
trade agreement, the trade volume has increased from US$1.6 billion in 2001 to US$6
billion in 2004. The shape of the bilateral trade, in all evidence, is no major
concern to either American or Vietnamese leaders.
The main issue left is security, for Vietnam itself and for the US position in the Pacific. Talking
about Vietnam’s security a question comes
to mind: whether Mr. Khai is trying to counter Chinese pressure with his visit to the US? It is a rather sensitive issue
at this juncture for both Vietnam and the US. To a similar question from
the press during his visit to Australia, Khai said his US trip should not be seen as an
attempt to counter anyone. At the same time the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington downgraded the visit as a
gesture to complete the diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam. But regardless of official
statements from both sides the visit was still to be seen as an effort by Vietnam to move a little closer to
the US. And closer to the US means necessarily a little further
In Australia, the Vietnamese delegation
stated that Vietnam and the US would discuss many issues
including the movement of the US fleet and the security of the
international sea lanes.
The sea lanes off the coast of Vietnam from the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Malacca to Northern Pacific Ocean are of high strategic importance.
Any country controlling them may have the power to weaken Japan as most of the oil needed to
sustain Japan’s economy flow through these
sea lanes. And Japan is a vital ally of the US in the Pacific. The route, in
addition, passes by the Spratleys, an oil reserve, to
which both Vietnam and China claim ownership. Had China been able to take over the Spratleys,
she could have both oil and the critical seaway under her control. If that
happened, Vietnam’s security on its eastern
part would be threatened and its invaluable natural resource lost. Vietnam would become a sitting duck
for China. For the US it will be worse: The US Pacific fleet, as well as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, would lie unprotected. The
oil reserves in the vicinity of Spratleys could then be in the hands of a power
that might turn into an enemy. In the current energy crisis, oil is the most
critical security factor for the US.
This eventuality could not be acceptable for both Vietnam and the US. The US attack on Iraq in 2003 was drummed up as an
effort to propagate democracy, but the main reason was to keep the huge oil
reserves of Iraq in the hands of a friendly government.
The same strategy and vision would be applied for the protection of the South China Sea seaway and its oil reserves.
This background implies that a strategic cooperation between Vietnam and the US is a must, and Mr Khai’s
coming visit would serve both countries’ interests. America is too big a power to come
over to Vietnam (let alone the term-end
pleasure visit by President Clinton in late 2000); thus, the reverse should
happen. It’s rather late for a leader from Hanoi to pay an official visit to
the US ten years after the formal establishment of diplomatic
relations. However, better late than never.
To tell the truth, the Vietnamese people in and out of the country see
the newest diplomatic development between Viet Nam and the US with mixed feelings.
The lesson of the relations between the US and Vietnam in the last 20th
century is still fresh in memory. The US cooperation with a Vietnamese
government without an adequate plan to win the support of the Vietnamese people
will eventually end up in failure as shown by the chaotic withdrawal of the US during the last days of April
1975. The Vietnamese-American cooperation in the 21st century marked
by Mr. Khai’ s visit should not be different. The US needs to approach the
Vietnamese people, not just the government in Hanoi, totally controlled by the Vietnam
In his second inaugural speech early this year, President Bush
solemnly proclaimed to the world that ‘anyone who lives in tyranny and
hopelessness should know: The United States will not ignore your
oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will
stand with you.’
The US-VN strategic cooperation can bring about long-term results of
security and interests of both peoples only when the government in Hanoi legally represents the
Vietnamese people and successfully gains their support through a policy of democratization.
Democracy does not exist in Vietnam. Human rights and democracy activists
are being ruthlessly suppressed; religious leaders are still being denied their
religious rights and the rights of organization; and no freedom of press or
speech! Removal of all these obstacles may
create an atmosphere for a successful cooperation.
Every country in the world has its own way to access democracy
based on its specific conditions. The way for Vietnam should be a peaceful, and engaged
by all political forces in the country working on a common solution without
hurting the interests of anyone. A democracy roadmap for Vietnam should be set up based on a
pluralist political system achieved through free elections. All interests should
be considered within the framework of a unique principle that the interests of
any political party should be placed behind the supreme interests of the nation
and the people. The best way to achieve democracy is through the rule of law.
Article 4 of Vietnam’s current constitution
refuses to accept pluralism; therefore, it should be amended so that the people
and different political trends (not just the three million VCP members) could contribute
their says to the shaping of national political
institutions and policies. This may provide solutions to the acute problem of corruption
and release the unlimited energy of the Vietnamese people. The VCP holds the
Vietnamese National Assembly under its control, and the said Article 4 amendment
may be done under the Politburo’s direction. This will create a new horizon for
the country and the people without causing harm to anyone.
Democratization is a long process. A pluralist political system
based on free elections needs time to mature. In the meantime, current leaders
can promulgate measures to provide justice and reconciliation to the society.
Freedom of press and expression is one. Respect for human rights, release of
detainees fighting for freedom and democracy, and
restoration of religious freedom are other feasible policies.
With such arrangement, a democratic government elected by the
people to serve the people will appear and transform Vietnam into an asset for world peace
and a valuable strategic partner to the US as well as other neighboring
June 21, 2005 may be marked as a historic date in the US-VN
relations if President Bush, representing the US, and prime minister Phan Van
Khai, representing the VCP, agree to set up their strategic cooperation on that
foundation (June 4, 2005)
Trần Bình Nam