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U.S. Ambassador to Hanoi on Vietnam Today

By Jackie Bong-Wright

U.S. Relations with Vietnam: In Question or Making Progress?

Raymond F. Burghardt, the U.S. Ambassador to Hanoi, shared his views about Vietnam with members of the Asia Society at Washington’s Regis Hotel January 21. He raised a range of issues – Vietnam’s economy, U.S. technical assistance, exchange programs, and accounting for missing servicemen as well as human rights and other problematic areas in U.S.-Vietnam relations.

U.S. Mission Growing

The Ambassador said his embassy had grown from a handful of officers at its establishment in 1995 to nearly 100 Americans and 400 Vietnamese staff. That, he said, was a normal level for a mid-sized country that was not a treaty ally.

Vietnam Reforming Economy, But Could Move Faster

The economic news from Vietnam, Burghardt announced, is generally good, but not perfect, a year after the entry into force of the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA). Trade in the first ten months of 2002 had increased by an amazing 109% over 2001, bringing Vietnam’s exports to the U.S. from $863 million to $1.8 billion. Over the same period, U.S. exports to Vietnam increased by 32.5%, from $366 million to $485 million.

Burghardt warned, however, that U.S. investors were still concerned about the “critical areas of transparency, investment, and protection of intellectual property rights.” Laws relating to foreign investment still needed to be revised. U.S. investors, he concluded, are still cautious, “waiting to see how Vietnam implements its BTA commitments.”

The Ambassador said that the BTA’s transparency provisions should be disseminated more widely in Vietnam. Draft laws, regulations, and administrative procedures should be published before they are enacted so enterprises and government agencies can plan for their implementation. Another U.S. concern was that foreign investment laws be applied consistently at the national, provincial, and local levels.

A third matter of importance to the U.S. concerned enforcement of intellectual property rights laws. These laws are supposed to punish trademark pirates and discourage additional intellectual property theft. Real enforcement would encourage both Vietnamese entrepreneurs and foreign companies to come into the Vietnamese market without fear of losing the intellectual property they had spent time and money developing.

“These changes are critical not only to successful implementation of the BTA, but also to Vietnam’s bid to fully integrate its economy into the world market and accede to the World Trade Organization.”

U.S. Technical Assistance

The Ambassador noted that the U.S. was working with the Vietnamese government to help implement the BTA by providing training, expertise, and hands-on strategic planning, both in Vietnam and in the U.S. Several aid programs, he added, notably the “STAR” (Support for Trade Acceleration Reform) project, funded at about $8 million over three years, and a number of targeted programs with the U.S. Vietnam Trade Council, provide Vietnam with technical assistance. U.S. lawyers and other legal experts had gone to Vietnam to help draft Vietnamese legislation on transparency, investment, trade liberalization, and intellectual property rights.

Another tool for integrating Vietnam into the global free-market economy, said the Ambassador, is the traditional U.S. educational exchange program. Burghardt used as an example the Vietnam Fulbright Program, the largest project in the world in dollar terms with a $5 million annual budget. It supports the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City, run by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which trains mid-career officials to promote economic reform. The program also sends scholarship recipients to the U.S. for MBAs and MAs in economics, public policy and other fields.

The Vietnam Education Foundation, with funding of $5 million until 2016, aims at building Vietnam’s capacity in the fields of science, technology, math and medicine. Finally, through the State Department’s International Visitor program, the U.S. embassy sends 20 young Vietnamese leaders each year to the U.S. for exposure to American society and institutions.

Burghardt reminded his audience that the U.S. continues long-standing programs to account for servicemen missing in action, help people with disabilities, support in demining, and promote other humanitarian and development activities. In recent years, the U.S. has become the biggest bilateral donor of assistance to Vietnam for HIV/AIDS, medical research, and disease control.

The Ambassador said that he would like to see military-to-military relations improved, and hoped Vietnam might take part in international or regional peacekeeping efforts as Hanoi began its campaign for a seat sometime this decade on the UN Security Council. Other areas that needed improvement were law enforcement cooperation, and information-sharing in counter-narcotics and intellectual property rights enforcement.

Human Rights and Basic Freedoms

The Ambassador did not evade the touchy subject of human rights. “Human rights is an issue of active, well-focused concern to organizations such as Human Rights Watch and many Vietnamese-American groups, as well as the American people as a whole.” He noted that the Vietnamese Communist Party had written basic freedoms into its Constitution. But in fact, according to the Ambassador, anything that “undermines national solidarity” – such as criticism of the Party or its leaders, or support for a multi-party system – is “not covered by freedom of speech.”

Even the internet, according to Amb. Burghardt, is subject to control efforts by the Vietnamese authorities. The Vietnamese government, he said, has blocked internet sites and closely monitors internet cafes. Last October, it issued new restrictions on the internet that seek to monitor, control, and censor educational, diplomatic and business-related websites by requiring them to undergo a lengthy and uncertain approval process.

“These restrictions,” the Ambassador warned, “only serve to disadvantage the competitiveness of Vietnamese domestic firms in the global digital economy and go against the world trend to expand, rather than restrict, access to information.” He said that Intel CEO Craig Barrett had declared, during a recent visit to Hanoi, that the more developed an economy became, the more investors would want that kind of open flow of information.

The Ambassador hoped that, although the U.S. and Vietnam would continue to have differences and disputes, the two countries would work through or around them to encourage positive trends. Concluding on an optimistic note, he tipped his hat to civil society. “Private companies, NGOs, and universities are as important as governments in developing international ties in the 21st century.”