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Vietnam: Crouching Tiger

By Jackie Bong-Wright

What Does the President Want?

“President Bush’s photo on the front page of the Washington Post, beaming under the bust of Ho Chi Minh, sent a dagger into the heart and the hundreds of thousands of former American “lackeys” who, like me, spent years in prison after the Americans left Saigon 31 years ago,” said Thanh Nguyen. “But now, as then, politics is just a game”

The President’s trip, however, also sparked optimism among those in the Vietnamese American community hoping for speedy democratic reforms from the younger elected leadership of the Communist Politburo. Said Janet Nguyen, a Garden Grove councilwoman in California, “I just hope that President Bush reminds Vietnam that if it wants to benefit from the free-trade market, it must respect human rights.” Bush’s goodwill gesture also sent smiles to the 83 million people in Vietnam, whose population is the second largest in East Asia, after Indonesia, and which years for faster economic growth and more U.S. dollars.

The President, with his wife Laura, attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that started November 15. The 21 APEC members, who account for about 60 percent of global economic output and nearly half of world trade, attracted an impressive crowd of 10,000, including 2,000 international journalists and 1,000 U.S. Fortune 500 and NGO (Non-Government Organization) leaders.

Bush is the second U.S. President, after Clinton, to visit Vietnam since the end of the war. What was his goal? To increase his foreign-policy credentials? Promote political and religious openness? Counterbalance China’s emerging military influence in the region? . (It was speculated that, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid a high-profile visit to Hanoi in April, one goal was U.S. access to air-terminal and deepwater-port facilities at Cam Ranh to counter China’s naval ambitions.) Strengthen economic ties and bilateral trade relations?

U. S. and Vietnam Do Some Horse-trading

The 30-year U.S. embargo spurred economic renovation in Vietnam in the mid-1980s. Full diplomatic relations resumed between the two countries in 1995. The U.S. and Vietnam in 2000 finally signed a Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA). Now, Bush hoped to strengthen economic ties and to support Vietnamese access to WTO in exchange for improvement on Vietnam’s human rights record, including its handling of religious freedom. Unfortunately, four days before the President embarked on his Asia trip, the U.S. Congress voted 228-161 against extending Permanent Trade Relations (PNTR) to Vietnam.

Unable to deliver on the PNTR, the Administration removed Vietnam from its CPC (Countries of Particular Concern) list of violators of religious freedom, stating that its record had improved. In return, it wanted Vietnam to repeal its decree on “administrative detention,” which can detain a person for up to two years, renewable indefinitely, without charge or trial. Agence France Presse has reported that Vietnam has agreed to scrap the measure – though to date Hanoi has not made a formal announcement. Perhaps as another a quid pro quo, Vietnam granted an early release from her 15-month sentence to Vietnam-born Thuong Cuc Foshee, an American citizen detained without charge for more than a year, for “humanitarian reasons” along with six others.

Vietnam got some goodies as well. Intel, the U.S. technology firm, just announced it would triple its Vietnam-based investment, to $1 billion. Its 500,000 square-foot facility in Ho Chi Mnh City will be the largest of its kind in the world. The U.S. Export-Import Bank has made loans to Vietnam that will enable it to purchase four Boeing 787s for its national airline. Bush also announced a $2 million grant from a private group to clean up “hot spots” around U.S. bases where defoliants containing toxic dioxin were stored and have leached into the soil and water.

Vietnamese Has Made Progress…

. Asia Time Magazine reports that, although Vietnam’s economy is still relatively small at $53 billion last year, it is vibrant, with 40,000 private businesses launched in 2005. Vietnam is now the world’s largest pepper exporter and second-largest.exporter of coffee, cashews and rice. “Multi-national companies are increasingly selecting the country as a manufacturing base, including Canon, with three printer factories. Nike has an annual production of 70 million pairs of shoes, making Vietnam country the world’s second-largest source of sneakers after China.”

Vietnam boasts a 7.5 percent GNP growth, second to China, although its per capita income is just $638. In the first ten months of 2006, foreign direct investment was estimated at $6.5 billion, surpassing the $6.1 billion total for all of last year.

After 11 long years of negotiations and with the Americans’ strong support, Vietnam’s petition to join the Geneva-based WTO (World Trade Organization) was finally approved this month. It will join the trade club in January as is 150th member. Tim Tucker, country manager for Ford Vietnam, which has an assembly plant outside Hanoi, said, “The WTO is the stamp of approval that many, many large companies have been waiting for.”

…But Still Has Far To Go

But Vietnam has to move fast to bring its legal system and infrastructure up to speed if the country hopes to attract more multinationals. Vietnam must make greater concessions than other nations, agreeing to lower trade barriers, reduce subsidies and allow virtually unfettered foreign competition in some sectors of its domestic economy.

Jonhathan Pincus, a Hanoi-based economist for the United Nations Development Program, declared that Vietnam must allow foreign banks to set up their own branch offices in the country, without requiring them to partner with domestic lenders. Less than 5% of Vietnamese now have bank accounts or insurance, so the potential market is enormous. State-owned companies and small-shop owners alike are certain to feel the pinch as foreign chains…come in and offer better service and customers flock to them.”

Perhaps Vietnam’s biggest adjustment in joining the global economy will be changing its culture of corruption, secrecy and state intervention. The country ranks in the bottom third of Transparency International’s corruption index. Carl Thayer, a political professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy, calls this “kicking the foreigner in the shin and demanding compensation.”

Can Vietnam Compete?

Can Vietnam compete with the international trading community? By joining WTO, Vietnam hopes to be free from trade restrictions such as garment quotas to the U.S. and Europe. Its textile sector, the largest export earner after crude oil, employs two million Vietnamese. Under WTO terms, Vietnam will be required to reduce its tariffs on American and other foreign goods to 15 percent or less, a move that would cover 94 percent of U.S. manufactured goods and 75 percent of U.S. farm goods.

The U.S., which imported $6.4 billion of goods from Vietnam last year, exported only $724 million to Vietnam, giving the U.S. a $5.7 billion trade deficit with Vietnam. Was the U.S. Congress holding up legislation on PNTR to Vietnam to protect textile manufacturers in their home states, or was it to punish Vietnam for its poor human-rights record? According to Jonathan Pincus, “They don’t know how dirty the U.S. is going to play. Is the U.S. going to raise antidumping barriers every time Vietnam increases its market share?”

Hanoi has undergone an extravagant, two-year face-lift to welcome the APEC leaders. Has Vietnam’s extraordinary economic progress meant significant political and social changes in the country?

Vietnam’s Double Identity

Newly-elected Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, 56, groomed for more than nine years for the top spot, has impressed foreign investors with his approach to economic reform. But human rights advocates and Vietnamese exile groups have condemned Hanoi’s leadership when it comes to civil liberties.

London-based Amnesty International says hundreds of prisoners of conscience remain in Vietnam’s jails. In Paris, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has said that many of Vietnam’s dissidents have been harassed for expressing their political views on line or in underground newspapers.

Before and during the APEC summit, harsh measures against Vietnamese dissidents have taken place. Vietnam’s Pro-Democracy Movement, Bloc 8406, in August announced its four-phase proposal for democratization — restoration of civil liberties, establishment of political parties, drafting of a new constitution, and, finally, democratic elections for a new National Assembly. Vietnamese authorities have cracked down on the group’s members through physical abuse, harassment, lengthy interrogations and two cases of detention without trial.

Attorney Le Thi Cong Nhan, spokeswoman for the newly-formed Progressive Party, has been questioned by the police a number of times. On October 26, she was prevented from going to Poland to attend a “Conference on Labor Organizing.” In November, the police reportedly forced her employer to terminate her job. Currently, five undercover agents are said to surround her apartment, preventing her from leaving. Her cell phone has allegedly been cut off.

Vietnamese authorities have also reportedly moved against Pham Hong Son, a medical doctor. After four years in jail on espionage charges for his pro-democracy internet writings. He was beaten on November 18 by security forces, bundled up in a police van and assaulted before being released, according to _____________.

Religious freedom has also been problematic, especially for the over 4,000 ethnic minority Christian “house churches” in the mountainous regions of the Northeast of Vietnam, whose struggle with the government is well documented.

Human Rights Watch urged the APEC leaders, especially Mr. Bush, to express themselves clearly in Vietnam on the need to respect freedom of expression. The organization is also concerned about government round-ups of street children and their treatment thereafter.

Thus, Mr. Bush’s trip occurs at a point where Vietnam’s human rights record falls short of its economic achievements – a failure that the country’s critics will no doubt continue to point out.