Posted on Mon, Jun. 05, 2006


Mercury News Editorial
The reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam has been a long, painstaking process. It began with the end of an economic embargo in 1996, and continued with the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1995, the exchange of ambassadors in 1997 and a major bilateral trade agreement in 2001.

A new trade deal between the two countries signed last week in Ho Chi Minh City paves the way for America's former enemy to join the World Trade Organization and complete its integration into the world economy. It's a step that will benefit the people of Vietnam and the United States. Congress must move quickly to ratify the agreement and grant Vietnam so-called “permanent normal trading relations'' so it can gain full membership in the WTO.

Since the 2001 accord, trade between the two countries has soared from under $1 billion a year to $7.8 billion in 2005, helping to heal old wounds and bringing the two countries closer together. That first trade agreement allowed U.S. businesses large and small to tap Vietnam's talented pool of workers. Tech companies were among the trailblazers. This year, Intel announced plans to build a $300 million chip assembly plant in Vietnam, and Microsoft chief Bill Gates visited the country for the first time.

Vietnamese-American entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley have further bridged the gap, leveraging their language skills and cultural know-how to establish tech businesses that span the two countries. In Ho Chi Minh City alone there are an estimated 100 software companies with at least 50 employees, and Vietnam's middle class is growing rapidly.

The latest agreement will accelerate this process, by eliminating remaining trade barriers and ending both U.S. quotas on Vietnamese textiles and Vietnam's subsidies to its garment and textile industries. The agreement also would give U.S. companies greater access to Vietnam's market in key sectors such as telecommunications, financial services and energy.

But Vietnam's accession to the WTO would put it on the fast track to the kind of modernization that has transformed China since its entry into the global trade body in 2001.

Like the relationship with Beijing, Washington's rapport with Hanoi will not always be all handshakes and smiles. Issues such as official corruption and especially human rights will remain an irritant — and rightly so — until Vietnam embraces greater political freedoms.

But people-to-people contacts and the exchange of goods between the two nations is the best way to cement Vietnam's budding liberalization, while benefiting workers and businesses on both sides of the Pacific Rim.

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In her air-conditioned shop in the downtown of Hanoi capital, Nguyen Thuy Ha zealously received a group of U.S visitors who were gluing their eyes on shelves loaded with Vietnamese traditional silk dresses, scarves, ties and bags in gay colors – red, pink, blue, yellow, green and purple.

"The United States is no longer Vietnam's foe. We are now friends, good friends. Our customers are mainly foreigners, including many Americans," said the shop owner who was born when American bombs rained down in the city in 1972.

Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, and the country's focus shifted to developing economy, it has looked forward to better relations with the United States.

Now, American symbols can be seen in every corners of Vietnamese big cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hai Phong, showing great influences of the United States on the country. Giant billboards in streets or stadiums feature logos of American Express Co. and MasterCard International Inc. credit cards. It is also easy to catch sights of U.S businessmen and tourists, huddling to chat at cafs with live music or relaxing at laid-back sunbeds of five-star seaside resorts.

The two countries, formerly enemies, have healed wounds of the war and forged the multi-faceted cooperation since their ties' normalization in 1995. Following the trips to the United States by Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai in 2005, and Vietnamese National Defense Minister Pham Van Tra in 2003, the U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld started his three-day visit to Vietnam on Sunday, to discuss with Vietnamese leaders on measures to boost the two countries' military cooperation.

Vietnam is looking forward to the visit of the U.S. President George W. Bush when he attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit slated for November in Hanoi. The visit, the second one to the Southeast Asian nation by a U.S. president, following the trip by Bill Clinton in 2000, is believed to create a new milestone for the bilateral relations.

And the new bilateral deal on Vietnam's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) officially inked by the two sides in Ho Chi Minh City last week, which paves the way for the country joining the global trading club late this year, is a concrete evidence for the two countries' blossoming relations, especially in the economic field.

U.S. firms are striving to persuade for the U.S. Congressional approval for Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) for Vietnam, expressing their desire of further penetrating into the Vietnamese market, which contributes to the development of the two countries' economic and trade cooperation. The two-way trade between Vietnam and the United States stood at 7.6 billion U.S. dollars last year, up from 6.4 billion dollars in the previous year, according to the Vietnamese Trade Ministry.

Many U.S. enterprises are also interested in investment in Vietnam. Late April, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates visited Hanoi, putting hope for the country's information technology industry on enhancing cooperation with the world's biggest software maker. Two months earlier, Intel, the world's chip biggest maker, announced it will invest 300 million U.S. dollars to construct a semiconductor assembly and test facility in the Ho Chi Minh City, the first of its kind in Vietnam.

Spokesman of Vietnamese Foreign Ministry, Le Dung, said that the war has passed for over 30 years, and it is time to "close the past and orient to the future."

Not only the government, but also almost ordinary Vietnamese people, even those who participated in the fight against the Americans in one of the 20th century's bloodiest conflicts at a cost of millions of deaths, are looking forwards to the closer relations with the foreign country, and their war memories have really faded.

"I have no more hated the United States. I think it's better if we have more friends, and fewer enemies. Moreover, having good relations with powerful countries can help improve our economy," said 67-year-old veteran Nguyen Duc Toan who lost his leg in a battle in central Quang Tri province 34 years ago.

For majority of Vietnam's population born after the war ended, who know it and its aftermath through historical lessons at schools and stories told by parents and grandparents, they want the ties between their country and the United States to develop faster.

American-invested enterprises in the country with high salary offers are attractive to many youths, while the United States is considered an educational heaven by a number of others. "Some of my friends have left for studying in the United States. They are so lucky. If the relations between the two countries get better, maybe we will have more opportunities to learn at U.S. universities," said economics student Nguyen Thi Huong aged 20.

However, a handful of older people who have been still obsessed by pains of the war have mixed feelings on developing the relations with the foreign country. "I know making friends with the United States is good. It can help improve our economy. But I can't forget the war which deprived my sole son," said 70-year-old widow Nguyen Thi Lien.

Despite different viewpoints of local people, the ties between Vietnam and the United States have been enhanced. Vietnam has cooperated with the United States in such fields as searching U.S. soldiers missing in action, some other-war related issues, and fighting bird flu and HIV/AIDS.

Source: Xinhua