PRESIDENT BUSH meets Vietnam's prime minister, Phan Van Khai, today at the White House, a mark of the transformation in U.S.-Vietnamese relations since the war that ended 30 years ago. Mr. Khai is visiting the United States with a large entourage of officials and business executives; he has toured a Boeing plant and dropped in on Bill Gates of Microsoft; he is due to ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and visit Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These symbols of warming relations are mostly welcome. But they should not obscure the fact that Vietnam remains a place where a citizen can be sentenced to 12 years' imprisonment for the crime of denigrating Communist Party officials in e-mails.
Mr. Khai hopes that his visit will build U.S. support for Vietnam's entry into the World Trade Organization, and there is no reason to deny him that. The Vietnamese economy has grown at an average of 7 percent per year over the past decade, thanks largely to a boom in the southern half of the country, which has responded vigorously to steady economic liberalization. As a result, Vietnam's poverty rate has fallen from about 60 percent to less than 30 percent, an achievement that ranks along with China's as one of the greatest development success stories ever. Vietnam, like China before it, wants to lock in its economic progress by joining the WTO, membership in which would require further pro-market reforms. The United States has an interest in encouraging emerging economies to become part of a rules-based international system, so it should welcome Vietnam's overtures.
The Bush administration is also interested in developing a defense relationship with Vietnam. U.S. naval vessels have made calls at Vietnamese ports, and the administration wants to include Vietnamese officers in its military training programs in the United States. Again, some measure of military cooperation is reasonable. The East Asian security balance could be upset in the future by a rising and assertive China or by North Korea's willingness to provoke the nuclearization of its neighbors. The United States must play its part in keeping a lid on these tensions; it has a large stake in the stability of a region that has become a leading destination for U.S. direct investment. Cultivating security relationships with Vietnam and other countries in the region is a prudent investment.
But these agendas -- economic and military -- must be balanced against the equally important agenda of democracy and human rights. Precisely because the United States has an interest in stable development in East Asia, it should be skeptical of a development model that's based on government control of the media and the imprisonment of dissidents; if a government fears its own people, how stable can it be? Equally, the United States is most likely to be influential in the region if it is seen to stand by its appealing values rather than making opportunistic alliances with dictators, as it has to its own detriment in the Middle East. For these reasons, Mr. Bush must use today's meeting to push a two-sided agenda: more economic and military cooperation on the one hand, more democracy and freedom on the other.