- The Washington Times - Friday, November 17, 2000

HANOI President Clinton opened a historic visit today to Vietnam, the country he sought to avoid as an anti-war protester, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the Southeast Asian nation in 30 years.

He was welcomed with a red-carpet ceremony near the mausoleum of the legendary Ho Chi Minh, architect of the communist victory over U.S.-backed forces in the war that ended 25 years ago.

Crowds of curious onlookers, some of them waving, stood three and four deep on the streets as Mr. Clinton's motorcade headed for the French-built presidential palace on Ba Dinh Square. The palace is a stone's throw from the gray stone building where Vietnamese line up each day to pay respects to the late leader they know as "Uncle Ho."

A military band played the national anthems of the United States and Vietnam as Mr. Clinton and President Tran Duc Luong stood under a canopied platform in the warm morning sun. An honor guard of military troops stood at attention.

On a visit stirring painful memories back home of America's long and most unpopular war, Mr. Clinton promised "to build a different future" with its former enemy.

"This only happens once in a thousand years," said homemaker Tran Thi Lan, 50.

Mr. Clinton flew to Vietnam from Brunei, where he convinced 21 Pacific Rim leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to embrace a U.S.-backed proposal for a new round of global free-trade talks under the World Trade Organization beginning next year.

Mr. Clinton's own past opposing the war and avoiding the draft hang over the trip.

But U.S. officials have tried to keep the focus of the journey firmly on the future. They insist the primary purpose of the trip is to demonstrate that the communist-ruled Southeast Asian nation "is not just a war, it's a country."

"One has to realize that Vietnam is a nation in transition," said U.S. Ambassador Douglas "Pete" Peterson, who served as an Air Force pilot in Vietnam and spent six years in a POW camp.

"It's transitioning in economics, making major changes politically, culturally, and generationally," he said.

The president's agenda will be a mix of backward- and forward-looking events. Tomorrow, he visits a site where a joint Vietnamese-U.S. task force is searching for the remains of some of the 1,500 U.S. servicemen still unaccounted for from the war, and he will address groups attempting to disarm land mines left over from the conflict.

But he will also give a nationally televised address to students at Hanoi National University today and on Sunday will talk in Ho Chi Minh City the former Saigon with Vietnamese and American business groups seeking to expand joint commercial ventures in the country.

White House officials said today's speech will note the two countries' joint past, but would be addressed to the challenges facing Vietnam's rising generation of leaders.

With U.S. veterans groups and the 1.3 million-strong American-Vietnamese community watching closely, Mr. Clinton will not offer any expressions of regret for the U.S. role in the war that left more than 58,000 Americans and an estimated 3 million Vietnamese dead, U.S. officials insisted.

"To be honest with you, I don't think an apology is nearly as important as a constructive engagement," Mr. Peterson said.

The ambassador said the president also plans to press his Vietnamese hosts privately on human rights and religious freedoms, and will encourage them to build on the economic liberalization incorporated in the bilateral trade deal the two countries concluded this summer.

For Vietnam, the trip has been seen less as an emotional closure to the war and much more in practical terms of what the United States can offer a still-poor nation. Public preparations for the trip have been markedly low-key.

Once seen as the next East Asian tiger, Vietnam's economy has cooled in recent years as foreign investor frustration has risen over corruption and the slow pace of government reforms. Vietnam's relative isolation helped it weather the continent's 1997-98 financial crisis, but Vietnam has also lagged as other East Asian nations rebounded strongly in 1999.

The ruling Vietnamese Communist Party remains divided over the direction and pace of economic reforms and finds itself under increasing pressure to deliver material prosperity. Some 60 percent of the population was born after the war that concluded in 1975.

"The war is in the past, and for most, Vietnamese ideological purity is irrelevant," said Frederick Z. Brown, associate director of the Southeast Asia studies program at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.

"The legitimacy of the Vietnamese Communist Party rests squarely on its ability to provide a better life for its people," he said.

First lady and Sen.-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Hanoi yesterday to greet enthusiastic crowds while daughter Chelsea has been traveling with her father on what could be the last major international trip of his presidency.

Richard M. Nixon was the last U.S. president to visit the country, coming to South Vietnam in 1969 at the height of U.S. involvement in the war.

Mr. Clinton's Vietnam trip comes after his success Wednesday and yesterday in convincing the Pacific Rim APEC-member nations in Brunei to call for new WTO free-trade talks next year.

National economic adviser Gene Sperling said trade ministers meeting before the APEC summit had failed to reach agreement. Japan and a number of Southeast Asian countries joined the United States and Australia in pushing the discussion.

The final communique reflected divisions over the benefits of broad-based, market-opening and trade-liberalization efforts.

"We are convinced that the movement toward global integration holds the greatest opportunity to deliver higher living standards and social well-being for our communities," the statement said.

But the leaders immediately added: "We understand that in all our economies there are people who have yet to gain the benefits of economic growth, especially in rural and provincial communities."

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