- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

Reconciliation between former enemies is not an event but a process. More than a quarter-century after the end of the Vietnam War, the United States has an opportunity to achieve an important milestone in our efforts to promote reconciliation with Vietnam by securing Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR). Congress should move rapidly toward approval of PNTR and provide our two countries, as well as the Asian region, with concrete evidence that we are committed to putting U.S.-Vietnam divisions behind us.

Normalization is only a small part of the rationale for approving PNTR for Vietnam. The starting point for our support lies in the expected gains for the U.S. economy once Vietnam becomes a member of the World Trade Organization, and PNTR offers the ability to benefit from that membership. Vietnam is already an expanding market for U.S. exports, growing 24 percent in the last year alone. Once implemented, our bilateral trade deal with Vietnam will further benefit U.S. companies, including firms in key service sectors such as telecom, distribution, financial services and insurance.

PNTR will also promote ongoing internal reforms within Vietnam. WTO membership will require adherence to the rule of law and greater transparency where trade matters are concerned. Implementation of Vietnam’s trade obligations will have residual impact on human rights and political liberalization there. Clearly, there are serious shortcomings with respect to human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam today. However, we are confident that once Vietnam embraces the global rules-based trading system, the country will set in motion a variety of forces that will ultimately lead to a freer nation.

Perhaps most importantly, PNTR for Vietnam is beneficial for the United States and our posture in a key region. Southeast Asia has an estimated current population of over 600 million people and a combined gross domestic product of almost $800 billion. We can expect both figures to grow quickly. In addition to its economic importance, Southeast Asia holds strategic importance as it sits astride the sea routes from the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean to the Pacific — through which 30 percent of the world’s trade and over 50 percent of the world’s energy shipments flow. We also need the full cooperation of Southeast Asia in fighting terrorism, proliferation and infectious diseases.

China’s influence in Southeast Asia is undeniably on the rise. While Southeast Asian nations have benefited from the expanded trade and investment opportunities that China represents, there has been considerable debate in Asia over how China’s economic rise will change the political landscape. This debate is particularly robust in Vietnam and is accentuated by that country’s difficult past in relation to China. Vietnam and China have engaged in war even more recently than Vietnam and the United States — China attacked across the border in 1979.

This country needs stronger relationships in Southeast Asia, and to gain these the United States must demonstrate a genuine interest in the problems and challenges of our friends. Many in Southeast Asia look at the United States as “Johnny One Notes” on counterterrorism issues. Though this is unfair (particularly in light of our generous response to the tsunami), this is a perception of the United States that we haven’t countered effectively enough.

PNTR for Vietnam does not a Southeast Asia strategy make. However, it will send a signal to countries in the region that we are committed to being an active participant in their collective affairs in the long run. Statements from our executive branch to this effect will be all the more persuasive when Southeast Asia sees that members of Congress in Washington are willing to stand alongside a former wartime enemy in the interest of greater peace, stability and prosperity.

There is even greater potential for U.S.-Vietnam cooperation, and the PNTR vote is a key pivot point. We have resumed U.S. Navy ship visits to Vietnam and instituted modest military-to-military programs. Our cooperation within multilateral organizations such as the ASEAN Regional Forum and APEC is strong, and improving. And our agenda for addressing transnational and global issues is expanding. PNTR for Vietnam will be a great source of leverage for even further partnership. President Bush will spend extra time in Vietnam after the 2006 APEC meeting in Hanoi. It would be an added boost to our president’s ability to strengthen ties with Vietnam if we already have PNTR successfully implemented.

As was the case when we established formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam, congressional advocacy for better relations with Vietnam is spearheaded by Vietnam War veterans. In the Senate, John McCain, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry are all original cosponsors of the PNTR legislation. And Rep. Jim Kolbe is a strong supporter in the House. We admire their service to their country and their leadership on this issue. We hope other members of Congress will choose to add their own support to this legislation.

Richard Armitage is the president of Armitage International, a former deputy secretary of state and a veteran of four combat tours as a naval officer in the Vietnam War. Randy Schriver is the founding partner of Armitage International and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia.

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