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

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Fair and Open Markets for American Business

Raymond F. Burghardt, the U.S. Ambassador to Hanoi, Vietnam, addressed
members of the Asia Society at the Regis Hotel on January 21, 2003 to share his views
about U.S. relations with Vietnam. He raised a range of issues from the economic to the educational, health, accounting of missing-in-action servicemen, to humanitarian and human rights as well as religious freedom.
The Ambassador said that from a handful of officials since the establishment of a formal Embassy in 1995, the U.S. Mission has grown to nearly 100 official Americans and nearly 400 Vietnamese staff, a normal level for a mid-sized country that is not a treaty ally. He continued that America’s relations with any country require action on the issues of direct concern to the American people reflecting the U.S. fundamental values as a nation.
Burghardt announced that economic news is generally good, but not perfect, after the one-year mark upon the signing of the “entry-into-force” Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA), as Vietnam called it. Trade figures in the first ten months of 2002 compared to those of 2001, increased by an amazing 109% benefiting 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.
However, “U.S. investors are still cautious, waiting to see how Vietnam implements its commitments under the BTA.” Burghardt warned that they were concerned about “critical areas of transparency, investment, and protection of intellectual property rights.” Burghardt mentioned that laws related to foreign investment still need to be revised.
Important transparency provisions providing an opportunity for public comment on draft laws, making public and publishing all laws, regulations, and administrative procedures before they are enacted, should be disseminated widely. That way, enterprises and government agencies can plan accordingly. Another concern is that foreign investment laws should be applied consistently at the national, provincial, and local levels.
The third most important matter is to enforce intellectual property rights laws that both punishes the pirates and discourages additional intellectual property theft. That measure would enable Vietnamese entrepreneurs and foreign companies to invest and sell their products without fear of losing the intellectual property they spent time and money developing, Burghardt noted.
He concluded, “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 (WTO).”
The Ambassador also said 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. He added that several aid programs, notably the “STAR” (Support for Trade Acceleration Reform) project worth about $8 million over three years, and a number of targeted programs with the U.S. Vietnam Trade Council, provide Vietnam technical assistance. U.S. lawyers and legal experts went to Vietnam to help draft Vietnamese legislation on transparency, investment, trade liberalization, and intellectual property rights.
Another tool to integrate Vietnam into the worldwide free-market economy is the U.S. traditional educational exchanges. Burghardt gave the example of the Vietnam Fulbright Program, the largest dollar-wise project in the world 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 training 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, etc.
Further, the Vietnam Education Foundation, also with a budget of $5 million until 2016 will dedicate to building Vietnam’s capacity in the fields of Science, Technology, Math, and Medicine. Finally, through the Sate 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 went on to remind the audience that the U.S. continued to commit itself to long-standing programs related to a full accounting for servicemen missing-in-action, helping people with disabilities, demining, and other humanitarian and development activities. In recent years, the U.S. has become the biggest bilateral donor on HIV/AIDS-related assistance, medical research, and in disease control.
The Ambassador said that he would like to see military-to-military relations improved, wishing Vietnam to take part in international or regional peacekeeping efforts as Vietnam begins its campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council by the end of the decade. Another area in law enforcement cooperation and information sharing on counter-narcotics protection and intellectual property rights for instance needs to have a breakthrough.
“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,” Burghardt declared. He touched upon the most sensitive heart disease of the Vietnamese Communist Party that tries to guarantee basic freedoms by writing them in its Constitution. But in fact, the Ambassador continued, “anything that “undermines national solidarity” – such as criticism of the Party or its leaders, or suggestions of the desirability for a multi-party system—is not covered by freedom of speech.”
The Vietnamese government blocked internet sites and closely monitor internet cafes. Last October, it issued new restrictions on the internet that seek to monitor, control, and censor normal, everyday, international, educational, diplomatic, and business-related information tools such as web sites, e-commerce sites, newsletters, brochures, press releases, etc., by requiring them to undergo a lengthy and uncertain approval process.
The Ambassador warned, “That is clear that these restrictions 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.” Intel CEO Craig Barrett expressed clearly, during his recent visit to Hanoi,
that the more developed an economy becomes, the more investors will want that kind of open flow of information.”
The Ambassador wishes that, although the U.S. and Vietnam will continue to have differences and disputes, the two countries will work through or around them to encourage positive trends and developments. “Private companies, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), and universities are as important as governments in developing international ties in the 21st Century,” Burghardt concluded with an optimistic note.