By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 17, 2005
HANOI, June 16 -- Once enemies in battle, Vietnam and the United States will cooperate in the exchange of intelligence on terrorism and transnational crime, and Vietnam will send military officers for training in the United States, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai said Thursday on the eve of the first U.S. trip by a top Vietnamese Communist leader.
The intelligence and military cooperation agreements will be announced when Khai visits next week, marking the highest-level visit to the United States since the Communists won the war in 1975. He will meet with President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on Tuesday.
The move to forge solid military ties between Vietnam and the United States shows how far the relationship has advanced in the 10 years since President Bill Clinton established formal diplomatic relations. The trip will be a milestone, analysts said, a signal that a mature relationship based on mutual interests in security and trade is beginning to take shape.
"During the war, Vietnam and the United States were opponents," Khai said during a 75-minute interview at his office in the capital, which is within walking distance of the mausoleum holding the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, the independence leader and North Vietnamese president during the war. "Now that 30 years have elapsed since the end of the war, it is our policy to put aside the past and look to the future and a better relationship between the two countries."
Khai, an economic modernizer, will meet Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft Corp., and ring the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He will also face questions about Vietnam's human rights record. Congressional leaders and leaders in the Vietnamese American community are pressing Vietnam to allow greater religious and political freedom.
One of Khai's goals is to persuade Bush to declare his support for Vietnam's accession to the World Trade Organization, which would allow Vietnam to compete on more even footing in a region nervously eyeing China's growing economic power.
Khai's trip is part of a wider effort by Vietnam to establish stronger relations globally, and analysts say the trip's success is crucial if economic reforms are to continue to flourish.
Khai also said he wanted to reach out to the sizable Vietnamese American community, saying, "They are an integral part of our nation and a very important resource for our country."
"Some stood on that side, some on the other side, even in one family" during the war, Khai said. "A lot of suffering has been put on the Vietnamese people. That's why we would like to put behind us the past and look forward to the future."
Khai, 71, was a member of Vietnam's revolutionary youth group in 1947, served as a government planner during the Vietnam War and was chosen prime minister by the country's Communist-governed National Assembly in 1997.
He said the intelligence agreement with the United States would extend to money-laundering and would entail the creation of positions to handle intelligence-sharing in the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi as well as in the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington.
"Terrorism has become a global threat," Khai said. "To eliminate terrorism . . . and to prevent it from causing catastrophic consequences to innocent people has become a pressing issue that requires joint efforts and cooperation of different countries. Vietnam is not an exception regarding this threat."
By terrorism, Khai was referring to violent anti-government activists rather than al Qaeda or other radical Islamic organizations, which are not known to have a presence in Vietnam.
The United States wants Vietnam's cooperation on issues such as drug smuggling, piracy and eventually nuclear proliferation, said Matthew P. Daley, former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs and Pacific affairs and now President of the US-ASEAN Business Council. "There's a range of future possibilities out there that are not strictly terrorist."
Though Khai said Vietnam's participation in the International Military Education Training program will be limited for now to English language and medical training for a handful of military officers, it is a significant sign that Vietnam is willing to engage the United States in defense cooperation, analysts said.
"IMET is a major breakthrough," said Carlyle A. Thayer, a defense analyst with the Australian Defense Force Academy who just completed a teaching appointment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and is in Hanoi to consult with the Defense Ministry. Vietnam had been concerned that participating in the program would invite unwanted scrutiny of its human rights record, but by agreeing to join, he said, "it has put its major objection aside."
It is difficult to overstate the extent of the two countries' diplomatic progress, analysts and former U.S. officials say. The arduous process to forge cooperation in searching for remains of U.S. prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action began in the late 1980s.
Today, notes Douglas "Pete" Peterson, the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam after the war and a former prisoner of war there, the progress made on the POW-MIA issue has become "the lubricant" of the relationship.
Since 1988, Vietnam has helped the United States recover and identify the remains of more than 500 U.S. service members killed or missing during the war, and the United States has helped Vietnam find the remains of hundreds of soldiers missing since the war.
In the last 18 months, three U.S. naval warships have docked in Vietnam. More such visits are expected, though no one is contemplating stationing U.S. military personnel or reopening bases in the near future, said analysts and former U.S. officials.
Clinton's successful trip to Vietnam in 2000, the first by an American president since the war, set the stage for Khai's visit. The signing that year of a bilateral trade agreement greatly boosted trade. Since 2001, when the pact took effect, trade with the United States has gone from $1.5 billion to $6.4 billion in 2004, 20 times higher than it was a decade ago, Khai noted. Vietnamese exports to the United States have soared from $800 million in 2001 to $5 billion last year.
Vietnam still has a long way to go, business leaders contend. They say it needs to make progress on a variety of issues, including opening access to financial service sectors and improving intellectual property protection.
When Khai -- who is bringing a delegation of more than 200 people, including 81 business people -- arrives in Washington, he will meet congressional leaders who will urge that Vietnam's economic progress be matched by progress in lifting restrictions on churches and political dissent. In September, the United States placed Vietnam on its list of countries about which it has concerns regarding religious freedom.
In the interview, Khai referred to Vietnam's "ultimate revolutionary goal" of "freedom and democracy," but said, "Political reforms and economic reforms should be closely harmonized."
"We have no prisoners of conscience in Vietnam," he said in response to criticism. In addition, he said, "the history of Vietnam for thousands of years has shown that there has never been a religious conflict in this nation."
This year, the government said that forced renunciations of faith were illegal and that unofficial churches, especially in the central highlands, should be given assistance to register legally.
But for critics among the more than 1 million Vietnamese Americans, that is not enough. "The first thing we request is that Mr. Khai restore freedom and democracy for the Vietnamese people," said Tan Nguyen, chairman of the civic organization Vietnamese Community of Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Members are planning to hold a demonstration in front of the White House when Khai meets Bush.
Vietnam and the United States also will announce the resumption of U.S. adoptions of Vietnamese children. Before the suspension of all international adoptions here in 2002, U.S. adoptions of Vietnamese children exceeded 700 a year.