Vietnam redux

June 22, 2005

THIRTY YEARS after the fall of Saigon and a decade after ties resumed between the United States and Vietnam, the prime minister of America's former enemy met yesterday with President Bush. Earlier this week, Phan Van Khai paid other important calls - on a Boeing aircraft plant and Microsoft's Bill Gates in Seattle. Tomorrow, he's expected to be on Wall Street to ring the ceremonial bell opening trading on the New York Stock Exchange. And then he's off to Harvard and MIT.

The message, of course, is that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is eager for more investment and technology from the United States, its largest trading partner. It wants to join the World Trade Organization. And it's willing to expand bilateral military ties. This extraordinary turn - rich with vivid memories, bitter politics and broad ironies - has been a long time coming, but it's hardly a surprise given the raw embrace of markets by most of the socialist world.

This first visit of Vietnam's top leader since 1957 is positive news, as was yesterday's U.S.-Viet statement in which Vietnam pledged to allow more religious freedom. Far beyond its particulars, the visit also provides a useful reminder - with America now bogged down in the quagmire of Iraq - of how time passes and inevitably brings change.

The problem, though, is how much change. Human rights organizations continue to document religious and political persecution by Hanoi, and the United States last year included Vietnam on its list of religious-freedom oppressors "of particular concern." In Vietnam, while Mr. Khai was in the Oval Office, the Communist Party was exhorting journalists to improve, in the words of Ho Chi Minh, "their revolutionary morality" - so much for free speech.

This is much the same contradiction that China poses. Opening to foreign cash flows and giving up state control to markets does not equate with greater political freedom. A greater presence of American investment, technology and culture can have profound political influences in former socialist prisons, but China has shown that, at least initially, such "market Stalinism" does not necessarily unlock their shackles.

Next year, Mr. Bush promises to visit Vietnam, as former President Bill Clinton did in 2000. Building on this reborn relationship, taking this opportunity to plant economic seeds deeper in Vietnam, is the right thing, economically and politically, just as it has been with China. (It also should be noted that given Vietnam's historic wariness of China, helping to develop the smaller nation on China's southern border is an indirect means of trying to contain Beijing's regional clout a bit.) But Vietnam's desire to capture U.S. wealth and technology should not suggest, even ironically, that America won this war. And with political change among avowed American goals, much remains to be hard won.

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