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An engagement that promises much: Vietnam's Opportunity
International Herald Tribune

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on May 4th, 2002

Could Vietnam be the Asian Communist country that finally gives that ambiguous term "engagement" a good name -- by showing that it really can deliver liberalization and democratization?

The answer may well be Yes, at least according to a working group of high-level Vietnamese emigres, Communist and anti-Communist in background, who met recently at the American Enterprise Institute here. The key will be how both Vietnam and the United States respond to the new geopolitical developments that are making such engagement logical for both sides.

Vietnam has long been preoccupied with independence. Maintaining it was relatively easy from 1975, when North Vietnam conquered the South, until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed. Hanoi had only to lean toward Moscow to counterbalance Beijing. But with the end of the Soviet Union, the counterweight disappeared, even as the economic, political and military strength of China grew.

Just how much the balance then shifted became strikingly clear this year when high officials in Hanoi, angered by their own government's yielding to Chinese pressures, anonymously leaked information about a series of secret agreements recently imposed on Vietnam by China.

In 1999 Hanoi agreed to turn over some northern territory, to be annexed and settled by China. In 2000 Hanoi agreed to new territorial divisions in the waters off Vietnam -- lines that gave China more, and Vietnam less, than before. None of this was truly voluntary.

Finally, when President Jiang Zemin of China visited Hanoi recently, he reportedly demanded that Vietnam open its port of Vinh to Chinese fishing vessels and that Vietnamese school textbooks be rewritten to present China's invasion of Vietnam in 1979 in a way acceptable to Beijing.

China evidently overreached. These successive demands proved to be the wedge that split apart two sets of interests that had hitherto coexisted uneasily in Hanoi's political circles. Vietnam's Communist Party, like China's, has long since given up any revolutionary mission in favor of self-enrichment. Some high party members therefore share an interest in maintaining dictatorship, if only to protect themselves. This meant relying on China for security -- a state traditionally viewed by Vietnamese with great suspicion.

But the "unequal treaties" such Vietnamese would accept stuck in the craw of others, still loyal to traditional Vietnamese nationalism. Now Hanoi is increasingly polarized between those -- mostly in the party and among the new rich -- who are willing to accommodate China provided their own wealth remains secure, and those -- most of the population and large sections of the army -- who insist on national rights.

Many Vietnamese leaders may welcome U.S. engagement initially because of shared security interests. But if America handles the process properly it can lead beyond those, to human rights, the rule of law, and even democracy.

The United States brings to the table capital, markets for Vietnamese exports and possibly foreign aid. On Hanoi's side, a bilateral trade agreement has been ratified, basic international human rights covenants signed and laws passed that mandate a more independent judiciary, financial disclosure by government officials and other genuine reforms.

But the laws have not been implemented, and U.S. money has not begun to flow. For engagement really to work this time, laws must be implemented, and aid made available, in parallel, step by step, so that the route that leads Vietnam closer to the United States will also lead it closer to the "independence, freedom and happiness" promised by Ho Chi Minh. Today more and more Vietnamese read Ho's promise as meaning democracy.

Such a process of engagement and rebalancing the power equation will serve the interests of Vietnam, the United States, and the peace of Asia.

Vietnam's Communist leaders are not about to turn into democrats. But signs are that they are now moving toward an understanding that their own national interests are surprisingly compatible with those of the United States. The time has come to explore the possibilities.

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