Trading with the enemy

U.S.-Vietnam: Hanoi accord would open Communist economy, put pressure on China, Cuba.

July 31, 1999

THE TRADE DEAL between the United States and Communist Vietnam, negotiated for three years and initialed by negotiators in Hanoi last weekend, would bring the economic Cold War nearer to its end.

While this trade deal will face searching scrutiny in Congress, it represents a tremendous breakthrough, following diplomatic recognition, in relations with a former enemy more than a quarter-century after a bitter war.

Details are not yet public; however, any such deal would include a pledge by Hanoi to open its markets to financial services as well as goods, to respect patents and copyrights and to hold foreign and domestic competitors to the same rules.

That is what Hanoi needs to do to get U.S. support for World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, which would allow Vietnam a much-desired chance to join other Asian countries as Western trading partners. Its primitive economy, however, has a long way to go before it can be a Thailand or an Indonesia, much less a Taiwan or South Korea.

For the United States government, achie ving normal trade with Vietnam should make it easier to renew such relations with China. Beijing will likely feel pressed to make concessions toward open trade, to qualify for the WTO membership it also seeks.

The deal also raises the question: If Vietnam, why not Cuba?

The idea is not a quirk of the Baltimore Orioles or the Schmoke administration's municipal foreign policy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is leading the parade to Havana, trying to loosen or to end U.S. sanctions and to pique Communist Cuba's interest in trade.

Isolation, however, is what keeps Fidel Castro in power. He may lack confidence that he can maintain a Communist political monopoly while opening up to free market economics.

The Communist rulers of China and Vietnam think they can, but they may be wrong.

If Cuba wants to hold its people in impoverished isolation as the price for keeping Mr. Castro in power, however, that ought to be the premier's call and not Washington's.

Debate will come when the U.S.-Vietnamese trade deal is published before a formal signing. The net result will add pressure for truly free trade on the recalcitrant capitals of Beijing, Havana and Washington.

Pub Date: 7/31/99

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