An Unsentimental Visit to Vietnam

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Clinton being greeted at Hanoi's Noi Bai International Airport

The symbolism of President Clinton's Vietnam visit may cloud the underlying strategic issues. After all, the spectacle of an erstwhile draft dodger becoming the first U.S. president to visit Hanoi and lay to rest the wounds of the past is pregnant with symbolic meaning, and will no doubt produce reams of op-ed copy in both the U.S. and Vietnam. But as President Clinton insists, Vietnam is not simply a war, but a country with whom the U.S. needs a relationship. And although he paid tribute to the war dead on both sides in an unprecedented speech Friday, the President and his Vietnamese hosts will spend less time dwelling on the painful past than on reshaping the future. "We cannot do anything about the past but what we can do is change the future," President Clinton said, and that's a message the Vietnamese leadership appears ready to embrace.

The past, as always, remains contested: Washington still wants Vietnam to account for the approximately 2,000 U.S. personnel still listed as missing in action, and the Vietnamese would like some sort of apology for a war that killed some 3 million of their people, and which they blame entirely on the U.S. But neither side is inclined to allow the past to deny the possibilities of the present and the future: the President will raise the issue of accounting for the MIAs, but won't let that block the relationship; rather than an apology, the Vietnamese will press for concrete help in addressing the legacy of the war, such as unexploded mines and the effects of Agent Orange.

Investment Opportunity

A country of 78 million people with an 88 percent literacy rate remains an alluring investment opportunity for U.S. business, even if the pace of reforming its archaic communist economy has been slow. Vietnam's communist leaders want U.S. investment more than ever, now that the early promise of turning the country into a new "Asian Tiger" economy has faded somewhat in a mire of bureaucratic red tape. Foreign investment, which amounted to more than $8 billion a year, or one third of the country's GNP, in the mid-'90s, has slowed recently, and a trade agreement signed with the U.S. in July is a sign of Hanoi's need to expand the U.S. presence in its economy.

Beyond the economy, there's also a strategic rationale for Vietnamese-U.S. rapprochement. Vietnam's wars against the French and the Americans were mere blips in centuries of history through which the principal adversary of the Vietnamese has always been China. Indeed, six years after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, Hanoi and Beijing fought a brief border war after Beijing sought to "punish" Vietnam for ejecting the Beijing-aligned regime of Pol Pot from power in neighboring Cambodia. (The Chinese, in that encounter, suffered what might politely be termed a thrashing.) And in recent years both countries have laid claim to the Spratly Islands, a disputed, possibly oil-rich archipelago in the South China Sea. Vietnamese wariness of the power of their much larger neighbor may indeed create a compelling geopolitical case for making nice with Washington.