- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

Like many Vietnam War veterans, I sometimes find it hard to reconcile wartime memories with the realities of Vietnam today.

As a company commander in the 101st Airborne, I served a combat tour in 1969. My focus then was narrow and simple: to ensure every soldier in my command returned home safely.

Sad to say, Viet Cong booby traps (what today we call Improvised Explosive Devices or IED’s) marred this vision. Twenty-six years later I returned to Vietnam with the U.S. secretary of state as we formally recognized the government in Hanoi. I saw the progress and potential of a country still struggling; needless to say, my vision broadened considerably. We were treated respectfully by our Vietnamese hosts, and they clearly wanted to draw closer to their former adversary.

The United States, as well, has had to reconcile its history with Vietnam with the reality of today. And beginning with the Reagan administration, we’ve taken significant steps to normalize bilateral relations.

Among the most important early initiatives was the 1992 establishment of a joint task force for cooperative recovery of America’s Missing in Action. This effort was more than just symbolic, as it has resulted in the resolution of hundreds of cases. While hundreds of American families still await word on the fate of their loved ones, there is no doubt cooperation with Vietnam has been a success.

Vietnam, of course, continues to be ruled by a communist regime. While this is anathema to American democratic ideals, we need to recognize that the Vietnamese government has embarked on an aggressive transition to a market economy, welcoming outsiders as well as foreign trade and investment.

This is a transition the United States has actively encouraged, with the 2001 U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement greatly contributing to the growth of a “new” Vietnam. This encouragement needs to continue, and Congress can to offer it by voting for “permanent normal trade relations” (PNTR) with Vietnam this summer.

PNTR is a formality the United States grants virtually every country in the world. In fact, it requires no new U.S. trade concessions — but it will allow the U.S. to receive the benefits of significant market opening concessions the Vietnamese have agreed to make when they enter the World Trade Organization later this year.

Without PNTR, U.S. business and agriculture will be on the sidelines as other WTO member nations receive the benefits associated with greater market access to Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing economy.

Beyond the significant potential economic benefits of PNTR for the United States, however, lie America’s broader, long-term strategic interests. As history has shown, countries that have evolved from closed economies to market economies have encouraged entrepreneurship, private property and the growth of individual wealth. And as populations rise out of poverty, a middle class emerges — bringing values and attitudes that foster growth of individual and societal freedoms.

Increased prosperity for Vietnam will mean greater economic stability, a growing middle class, more interaction with the West, and eventually, more economic and political reform.

Asian “Tigers” such as South Korea and Taiwan both evolved from nondemocratic, authoritarian governments. As their economies grew, so too did the march toward democracy. Today they are not only strong democracies but regional economic powers and staunch U.S. allies. Nobody can predict how Vietnam will evolve, but history shows economic growth and increased freedom usually go hand-in-hand.

Vietnam is resource-rich, has an educated work force and is strategically located in Southeast Asia. It has all the tools to become the next Asian Tiger and a catalyst for growth and development throughout the region — pulling Cambodia, Laos and other lagging countries toward greater stability.

The countries of Southeast Asia, with a total gross domestic product of $2.7 trillion and more than 570 million people have become the fourth-largest U.S. export market. Increasing our economic ties by cultivating these expanding markets will help strengthen U.S. influence throughout the region.

Approving PNTR offers the United States a chance to strengthen its relations with Vietnam, and in turn, enhance its economic foothold in Southeast Asia. And keeping the United States competitive in Southeast Asia is particularly important as China flexes its growing economic might and widens its sphere of influence.

Congress likely faces a vote on Vietnam PNTR this summer. It is clear America’s long-term security and economic interests will both benefit if that vote is “aye.”

Daniel Christman, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general, is senior vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

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