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Vietnam Has High Hopes For President's Meetings in Washington

  • Matt Steinglass

For the first time, the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is visiting the United States. Nguyen Minh Triet will meet with President Bush on Friday and also will meet with congressional leaders. Relations between the two former enemies have never been better, but human rights issues remain a stumbling block, as Matt Steinglass reports from Hanoi.

In their meeting on Friday, President Triet and President Bush plan to sign a trade and investment framework agreement, the first step toward a bilateral free trade agreement.

The U.S. is Vietnam's number one export market, and Virginia Foote, director of the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council, says businesses see Mr. Triet's trip as a reassuring sign.

"It's the first post-normalization trip by a head of state, and I think everyone sees it as a sign that the relationship is good, and strong," she said. "There are several things happening on this trip that are breaking new ground."

Besides signing the trade agreement, Mr. Triet has said he will talk to Mr. Bush about help for Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange, the herbicide the U.S. sprayed on Vietnamese jungles during the Vietnam War.

Agent Orange has been linked to a variety of health problems. The U.S. has compensated American soldiers who were exposed to the herbicide, but it has long hesitated to help Vietnamese victims.

In the past two years, the U.S. has begun sending scientists to analyze areas that were exposed to Agent Orange, and last November President Bush signed an agreement promising further help.

One sore point on President Triet's trip will be Vietnam's crackdown on democracy activists over the past six months.

The crackdown led to denunciations in Congress and the White House, and at one point threatened to postpone Mr. Triet's visit.

But Vietnam has since released several dissidents.

Tom Vallely, director of the Vietnam program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, says the issue is not going to derail the relationship.

"I know that President Triet and his delegation are going to be meeting with Speaker Pelosi (Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) and others, and I think they are going to raise issues of human rights with the delegation. But I think the important thing is that they're having that discussion," he said.

Several senior U.S. foreign policy figures have mentioned Vietnam's strategic importance in fighting terrorism and international organized crime in recent articles.

Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, says that is the surest sign of growing U.S. interest in Vietnam.

"The U.S. full well knows that Vietnam is going to be on the U.N. Security Council for a year as Asia's representative. It's a growing economy. So there's a strategic element to all this. Commerce is big, the economic side is big, but the strategic element is much more important," said Thayer.

The U.S. and Vietnam will continue to have differences, analysts say, but Mr. Triet's visit shows that both countries consider their improving relationship too important to set aside.

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