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A Very Different Vietnam

Forty years ago this past spring, the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam after a war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives on all sides and exposed more than nine million U.S. military and civilian personnel to the horrors of battle in Southeast Asia. Since then the dynamic between the two countries has grown steadily into an economic and strategic relationship that few could have imagined. 

Today the only U.S. boots on the ground in Vietnam are American businessmen and women engaged in trade and investment opportunities, taking advantage of low labor costs, a flexible workforce, and a respectable annual growth rate of 5 percent or more.  In fact, the only adversaries business executives are concerned about in the Southeast Asian country are other Western corporations vying for a share of the marketplace. 

U.S. corporations as diverse as Intel, Coca Cola, Proctor and Gamble, General Motors, and Anheuser Busch are among hundreds of companies providing foreign direct investment that now exceeds $210 billion.  Others engaged in private and public financing, setting up global call centers, offering business process outsourcing, and developing software have been particularly successful in helping Vietnam reach its goal of ensuring that the services sector surpasses 40 percent of the country's GDP by 2016.

Although President Obama was in high school when the war came to an end, he has appointed two Vietnam War veterans to head up the departments of state and defense. Furthermore, his former opponent, Senator John McCain, one of the war's most famous casualties, has remained a political powerhouse with continued personal interest in the future of U.S.-Vietnamese relations.  Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang himself spent two years in a South Vietnamese prison in his early twenties towards the war's end.  

For the United States and Vietnam the war is part of their shared DNA.  Given the steady ascendancy of China and a wariness of its future intentions, both governments find that sharing one another's company beyond economics has its advantages as well.

Both Sang and President Obama met in the Oval Office this past July just weeks after each of them reportedly had less than promising breakthroughs in one-on-one meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping.  Given the suddenness of the Washington trip, Sang and his country's Politboro clearly have had several things in mind:

•    Vietnam wants to accelerate its commercial ties with the United States, which reached $25 billion in two-way trade last year. Ironically, Vietnam is looking for U.S. support in turning its central command economy into a hybrid in what John Kerry referred to in their working lunch as empowering the "untapped dynamism of the Vietnamese people."  With China's labor costs rising and its growth rate diminishing, Vietnam wants to forge a stronger relationship with the world's largest economy, and that includes sending thousands of Vietnamese students to the United States each year to be educated.  While U.S. quotas on textiles and apparel and Vietnamese tariffs on agricultural and consumer goods remain a problem for now, they will not deter both sides from finding ways to make overall progress. This is particularly true in light of Vietnam's desire to become an integral part of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a group of nations, promoted heavily by the United States, that just finished talks this week in Kuala Lumpur to create a liberalized economic Asia-Pacific region.  

•    Vietnam needs to find political and military leverage with China, its behemoth neighbor to the North, the major unspoken conundrum in the Oval Office talks.  From resolving territorial disputes to having a counterweight to China's dominance in the region, the country wants to find ways to engage the United States in some kind of a loosely defined strategic relationship.   

•    President Sang knew before he left Hanoi that his country's record on human rights would be contentious.  To counteract claims of inaction, he pointed to recent efforts by his government to guarantee religious and other freedoms. In their forty-five minute meeting, President Obama stressed that far more would have to be done to resolve a major stumbling block to future relations.

And yet progress was made.  With both presidents having walked away from their meetings with President Xi with more questions than answers, they clearly are working to find common ground in pursuing a stronger relationship with each other.   

And so the paradox of history plays itself out once again.  A fiercely fought war between two brutal adversaries has given way to growing empathy and mutual self-interest.  How the relationship between Vietnam and the United States plays out in the coming years will continue to reveal a great deal about lessons learned and how both countries have constructively forged a constructive path into the future.            

James P. Moore, Jr. is a senior advisor to the Harvey Nash Group and professor at Georgetown University.  He served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce under President Reagan.