Fri, 17 Nov 2000

Hanoi's global challenge

"The president of the United States, W.O J. Clinton, and his wife will make an official visit to Vietnam from November 16 to 19. This visit will be at the invitation of President Tran Duc Luong."

Those two sentences comprise everything the Vietnamese Government has said in advance about a state visit which a Hanoi official calls "nothing exceptional". But as is often true with communist regimes, the authorised line leaves out much that is truly vital. No matter what the trip is called, Bill Clinton's visit is highly unusual, and it gives Hanoi an opportunity to signal just how deeply involved it wants to become in global affairs.

This will be the first U.S. presidential visit since Richard Nixon stopped in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1969, and the first ever to Hanoi and a unified Vietnam. Much of Clinton's time will be spent dealing with the aftermath of the Vietnam War, such as visiting the site of a 1967 U.S. military jet crash and agreeing to study longterm effects of the Agent Orange defoliant. This reflects political pressures back home.

But more important for Vietnam and the region will be talks about opening the country to trade and investment. Clinton lifted a wartime embargo in 1993, and the United States and Vietnam signed a trade protocol in 1999 which Hanoi promptly froze. This year the two governments upgraded it into a formal trade agreement but neither side has yet followed through with ratification. The main obstacle is in Vietnam, where party conservatives fear they may lose political control if the energetic Vietnamese are allowed to follow their entrepreneurial instincts.

However, unleashing that energy is exactly what Vietnam needs. The country remains one of the poorest in East Asia, with a fast- growing population of 77 million (most of them born since the war ended in 1975) and an economy that cannot create jobs fast enough. Official statistics show progress but the regime remains wary of moving quickly towards a free market; ideology still has a grip in upper party circles, though it has much less impact on the lives of ordinary people.

Putting the bilateral trade pact into operation would do much for Vietnam's economy. Within one year, the World Bank predicts, clothing exports to the United States could climb tenfold. Nike already makes 10 per cent of its shoes there, but few go to America because of high tariffs which would fall under treaty terms.

The challenge for Hanoi is to demonstrate that it truly wants to join the global economy and seek faster growth.

-- The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong