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Vietnam Pushes for More Trade and Regional Engagement 35 Years After US Departure

  • Gary Thomas

It has been 35 years since North Vietnamese forces took over the capital of what was then South Vietnam, ending a long and bloody war with the United States. Today, a unified Vietnam is focused on free market economic reforms, while maintaining its communist political system. That presents roadblocks to closer ties and more trade with its onetime enemy - the United States.

These days, Vietnam is more concerned with dollars and cents than with war and peace. Trade and economic issues dominate the concerns of the government. And they dominate the relationship between Vietnam and the United States.

But it has not been an easy road for Vietnam since 1975. Not only did it have to rebuild after the war with the U.S., but it also had to deal with a changing world in which its main sponsor, the Soviet Union, collapsed and the communist political system it fostered largely disappeared.

Frederick Brown of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington says Vietnam had little choice but to adapt.

"With the imminent fall of the Soviet Union and Eurocommunism in 1986, Vietnam really came to a crossroads," said Frederick Brown. "It had to abandon the Marxist economic model. And that was done in the Sixth Party Congress of 1986. That was the beginning of an extraordinary evolution that has proceeded until today."

The reforms, known as doi moi, were adopted at a Vietnamese Communist Party Congress in 1986. Like its communist neighbor to the north, China, Vietnam liberalized its economy and looked to wooing foreign direct investment, while maintaining a single-party state. Political reform did not come with economic reform.

China's evolution might have been an inspiration for Vietnam's reforms. But analysts say that China's growing power has motivated Vietnam to reach out to the rest of Asia and the United States.

Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, says Vietnam's concerns about China were key to its entrance into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in 1995 - the same year it normalized relations with the United States.

"Vietnam joined ASEAN because it believed ASEAN would be a significant group who could together oppose the pressure and the assertiveness of a growing and more engaged China," said Ernest Bower. "And I think Vietnam has actually been a very strong member of ASEAN, surprising even its original members."

Frederick Brown of The Johns hopkins University says trade is the cornerstone of U.S.-Vietnam relations. But, he adds that growing Chinese influence has been a concern for Vietnam's leaders as Hanoi tries to walk a thin line between China and the United States.

"For Vietnam, [there are] lots of difficulties with many of their own political cadres who are very concerned about the relationship with the United States," said Frederick Brown. "[As] the old saying [goes], "[too close to China, you lose your country; too close to America, you may lose the [Communist] Party.'"

But human rights issues complicate Vietnam's move toward closer ties with the United States, particularly its desire for special treatment in trade and other economic ties.

Vietnam's efforts to attract more foreign investment have also been hampered by internal bureaucratic hurdles and corruption. Analyst Ernest Bower says the most egregious corruption has been curbed, but the problem persists.

"Major corruption has been significantly put back in the box because the [Communist] Party sees that large-scale corruption was a risk to the Party's very survival," he said. "But there's still a lot of bureaucratic red tape. It's still very hard to get deals done in Vietnam. You've got to go through a lot of steps. And smaller scale corruption is still sort of endemic, and it's a problem."

The Vietnamese government recently initiated a program to help wipe out corruption. Called "Project 30," it holds ministers accountable for streamlining administrative procedures and increasing transparency.

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