By JORDAN RYAN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Vietnam still touches a raw nerve in the United States. Even as President Bush received Prime Minister Phan Van Khai on Tuesday -- 30 years after the last U.S. troops left, and 10 years after the two nations re-established diplomatic relations -- some Americans continue to see the Vietnamese as the enemy. There are veterans who viscerally distrust those they once engaged in combat. Some in the Vietnamese-American community would rather fly the flag of the defunct Republic of Vietnam than recognize the geopolitics of 21st century Asia. And there are those who oppose reconciliation for ideological reasons.
Additionally, the American opponents of a normalized relationship with Vietnam have natural allies in Hanoi -- not reformers like Khai, but hard-liners in the government who remain deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions.
Both countries need to update their perceptions of one another.
As an American who has spent seven years working in Vietnam for the United Nations, I can attest that most Vietnamese -- from high officials to ordinary citizens -- are ready to engage fully with the United States economically, diplomatically and culturally. The Vietnamese are equally united in their insistence that this relationship be one of mutual respect.
Vietnam is one of the most dynamic countries in the world. Nearly 60 percent of its 80 million people were born after the end of the American War, as they call it, and don't dwell on it. Two decades of economic and political reform have returned the land to farmers, freed the private sector, liberalized trade and opened the door to international investors.
The U.S.-Vietnam commercial relationship is strong. The trade agreement signed with Washington five years ago was an economic bullet train that the Vietnamese did not miss. Exports to the United States are up sixfold, and imports from the United States have tripled since 2000.
The prime minister's historic visit offers the occasion to accelerate this progress. Vietnam and its entrepreneurs need a fair chance to compete in world markets. After 10 years of negotiations, the country is poised to enter the World Trade Organization. One of the last remaining hurdles is a new, broader trade agreement with the United States. Some U.S. business interests are demanding unrealistically rapid implementation of open-market reforms, while others want to keep punitive tariffs on Vietnamese exports such as catfish and shrimp.
The Bush administration should resist these pressures. Bringing negotiations to a swift conclusion and throwing American weight behind Vietnam's immediate entry into the WTO will help build a prosperous, outward-looking Vietnam.
The two countries' shared interests extend beyond a healthy trading relationship. Both want to engage with China in ways that encourage that nation to use its growing industrial and political power to promote stability in the region.
Defeating global threats such as HIV/AIDS and international terrorism is high on both countries' agendas. Avian influenza may seem like a distant problem to most Americans, but if human-to-human transmission occurs, as appears likely, the risk of a horrific global pandemic is real. Vietnam is likely to be ground zero. With the help of its best scientific minds, the United States needs to respond swiftly to this emerging threat.
Vietnam also needs help building domestic institutions to support the market economy. The United Nations Development Program, for example, is working with the American Bar Association on legal and judicial reform in Vietnam. The program is working with representative bodies, including the National Assembly, to strengthen legislative oversight of government.
As a signatory to the U.N. Millennium Declaration, Vietnam has made commitments on human development and freedom from want, and more. Additionally, although political reform has a long way to go, the Vietnamese people enjoy more freedom today than at any time in their history. American understanding and support is vital to expanding this freedom.
Even as they encounter political resistance at home, Bush and Khai must act resolutely, and pragmatically, in the interests of regional and global health, security and prosperity.
XRyan is the resident representative of the U.N. Development Program in Hanoi. The opinions expressed here are his.