Old foes set to fashion ever closer friendship

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 June, 2007, 12:00am

History may hang heavily when the Vietnamese president travels to the US this weekend, the first such post-war mission by a Vietnamese head of state. But it will be a visit defined more by the future than the past.

Both sides will be seeking to capitalise on President Nguyen Minh Triet's meeting with George W. Bush to broaden and deepen a relationship with an increasingly strategic dimension.

Vietnam wants to attract greater foreign investment to spur its rise out of poverty, and US manufacturers are keen to find cheap alternatives to mainland China.

Beijing will surface in other ways, too, as the former enemies seek to balance their own relations with an emerging China by expanding bilateral diplomatic and military ties. Significantly, Mr Triet visited Beijing last month seeking to bolster Vietnam's warming but complex relationship with its giant northern neighbour.

Hanoi's relations with Beijing are marked by potential, as well as by lingering suspicions; there are intriguing angles, too, to its relations with the US.

Trade has expanded swiftly since the signing of a bilateral deal in 2000 and the US is now Vietnam's biggest trade partner. Annual two-way trade has reached US$9.7 billion and is set to expand further this year.

The US is a laggard in investment, however, and Mr Triet will be flanked by a delegation of Vietnamese businesspeople on his mission.

They can be expected to receive a warm reception - Vietnam is one of the region's fastest-growing economies and its fledgling stock market is finally garnering international attention.

In a pre-visit interview, Mr Triet spoke of widening the relationship with the US.

'I plan to discuss with President Bush and other US leaders specific measures to strengthen the effectiveness and stability in the Vietnam-US relationship,' he said, adding that he was aiming for 'specific results'.

His apparent confidence stems from a flurry of US-Vietnam diplomacy over the past year that included a trip to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City by Mr Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The then defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, also paid a visit - something which would have been inconceivable just a decade ago.

Relations frozen for 20 years after the communist victory over the US-backed Saigon regime in 1975 were not fully restored until 1995.

Despite the warmth in the current relationship, that legacy is never too far away.

Mr Triet arrives in New York on Monday just as a federal appeal court in the city hears arguments from Vietnamese seeking to sue the US manufacturers of the Agent Orange defoliant sprayed on Vietnamese jungles during the war.

The toxic dioxin compound found in Agent Orange has been linked to birth defects and other health problems among Vietnamese and war veterans.

Mr Triet may also face protests from exiled southerners allied to the defeated South Vietnamese government who continue to challenge the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.

Human rights will be on the agenda in formal talks with the Bush administration, amid widespread fears among foreign governments and activists that recent crackdowns on dissidents run counter to the government's wider reforms.

All in all, it is quite a diplomatic test for Mr Triet, who is still in the first year of his presidency.

A former party boss in Ho Chi Minh City, he has hands-on experience of the economic reforms now driving growth and he has brought clout to what has been a ceremonial role in the past.

As president, he shares power with the prime minister and party general secretary in a leadership triumvirate.

A successful US mission will further strengthen the cause of Mr Triet and his modernisers.