John McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for five years, is a Republican senator from Arizona.
In 1991, the Bush administration proposed a “road map” for improving our relations with Vietnam. Under its provisions, Vietnam was required to help secure a political settlement of the Cambodian conflict; take unilateral, bilateral and multilateral steps to help the United States account for its missing servicemen; and release from so-called “reeducation camps” all remaining South Vietnamese government and military officials. In response, the United States would move incrementally toward fully normalized relations.
Although the Vietnamese never formally accepted the road map, they are acutely aware that they have met most of its conditions. Vietnam’s cooperation warrants the immediate normalization of our diplomatic relations. It would be unfair, injurious to the credibility of the United States and beneath the dignity of a great nation to evade commitments that we freely undertook.
The issue involved in our relations of greatest importance to the American people is the accounting for our missing servicemen. Vietnam’s cooperation with the United States on this issue is extensive and has increased since we lifted our trade embargo against Vietnam last year.
The judgment is shared by practically every American official — military and civilian — involved in our Joint Task Force for a Full Accounting. The United States spends about $ 100 million a year on our accounting efforts. We have made substantial progress in determining the fates of all those missing for whom we can reasonably expect an accounting. The Vietnamese government even allows us to excavate Vietnamese cemeteries in our search for American remains.
There remain only 55 cases that offer even the slightest hope that the servicemen in question did not die at the moment of their initial loss and that we think might be resolved through joint investigation with Vietnam or possibly through unilateral action on the part of the Vietnamese.
There are those who would disagree with me about the level of Vietnam’s cooperation. They do not include, however, anyone who is directly involved in our accounting efforts. On my most recent trip to Vietnam, the dedicated Americans stationed in Vietnam to recover our missing all agreed that cooperation with Vietnam is excellent.
Normalization might also aid reform forces in Vietnam. I do not pretend to understand the byzantine complexities of political rivalries in Hanoi. I do believe that when in the past the United States has been reluctant to improve our relations, the influence of anti-Western, anti-reform elements in the Vietnamese government has increased at the expense of Vietnamese reformers. That is unfortunate. And although it is probably impossible for American policy makers to fully comprehend the obscure workings of power in Hanoi, we can, at least, demonstrate that there are benefits to seeking accommodation with the United States.
Of even greater concern is the balance of power in the region. It is not in our interest for any nation to achieve economic or military dominance in Asia. Our concern that this not happen is increasingly acute given China’s growing economic and military might, its aggression in the Spratley Islands, its acquisition of nuclear submarines from Russia and its pursuit of aircraft carriers to further project its power in the Pacific.
If decentralization and other political dynamics within China today do not lead to the systemic reform of the regime and the restraint of Chinese imperialism, the United States will likely confront China as our number one security problem.
It is, therefore, absolutely in our national security interests to have an economically viable Vietnam strong enough to resist, in concert with its neighbors, the heavy-handed tactics of its great power neighbor. That reason, more than any other, urges the normalization of our relations and makes Vietnam’s membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the increasingly responsible role Hanoi is playing in regional affairs, a very welcome development.
There is an issue that separates the United States from Vietnam that was not really addressed in the road map -- human rights. Vietnam’s human rights record is not the worst in the world. But it needs substantial improvement. The continuing persecution of religious clergy in Vietnam underscores that truth.
Good people disagree honorably over whether we are better able to promote civic freedoms in Vietnam from within or outside that country. But the United States does not have the power to isolate Vietnam. The Vietnamese are already developing complex relations with the rest of the free world. So instead of vainly trying to isolate Vietnam, let us test the proposition that greater exposure to Americans will render Vietnam more susceptible to the influence of our values.
Four years ago, former Vietnamese foreign minister Nguyen Co Thach grasped a truth that had eluded some of his politburo comrades. “Vietnam,” he told me, “must accept the destiny of a small country.” Vietnam has come a long way in the past five years toward accepting that destiny, and the United States should recognize that progress has been made and should relinquish its lingering resentments from the war.