Phan Van Khai heading toward USA


Tran BinhNam

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 from China.

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 Communist party.

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 Vietnamese people has been struggling against the dictatorship of the VCP. And Mr. Khai should be told that the US is talking with the VCP but wish to cooperate with the Vietnamese people. The US has an outstanding promise to support those who are fighting for democracy.

The US-VN strategic cooperation can bring about long-term results of protecting  the 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 peace-loving nations.

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