For Vietnam, trade with US top priority

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US President Barack Obama and President Truong Tan Sang (L) of Vietnam shake hands during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, July 25, 2013. PHOTO: AFP

Progress on an ambitious regional free-trade pact topped the agenda as Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang Wednesday began a three-day visit to the US, an indication of Vietnam's keenness to boost trade with its former foe.

Sang was the second Vietnamese president to visit the White House since the normalization of bilateral ties in 1995 when he met Barack Obama Thursday morning. The previous visit was by Nguyen Minh Triet in 2007.

The two leaders' meeting came as the 18th round of regional free-trade talks among the US, Vietnam and nine other countries were wrapping up in Malaysia. Japan joined this week as the 12th country in the talks for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, known as the TPP, Reuters said.

"We're committed to the ambitious goal of completing this agreement before the end of the year because we know that this can create jobs and increase investment across the region and in both our countries," Obama told reporters in the Oval Office.

At a luncheon hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry Wednesday, Sang also voiced hope the 12 nations in talks for the TPP would strike an agreement "soon" on the potentially landmark pact, AFP reported.

The TPP is seen as key to ensuring the US helps to write the rules for trade in the Asia-Pacific region and is not left on the outside as countries organize manufacturing, agriculture and service sectors around China.

It aims to phase out tariffs on most goods traded between the countries over 10 years and tackle "21st century issues" such as the role of state-owned enterprises in trade, government innovation policies, cross-border data flows, and supply chain management.

US government officials have said the TPP should help US exports in machinery, aircraft, medical instruments, agriculture, and other sectors.

Proponents of the pact say the deal would encourage multinational companies to invest in Vietnam because they would be able to export easily to the US.

Critics say the negotiations are shrouded in secrecy but leaks indicate that the US is trying to use the treaty to impose restrictive intellectual property rules that could prove incredibly damaging to developing countries.

Analysts warn Vietnam should be very cautious about an agreement that may not be in its national interest.

"It certainly seems geared, like most free-trade agreements, to benefit corporations more than citizens," Edwin Martini, an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University in the US, said.

Members of Congress have warned they may object to the TPP unless Vietnam improves its human rights record, charges the Vietnamese president bristled at.

"Vietnam has been making sustained efforts to protect and promote human rights so that the people can benefit from the finest results of the reform process," Sang was quoted by AFP as saying.

Last April the Politburo, the decision-making body of the Vietnamese Communist Party, adopted a resolution on international integration, highlighting the role of the major powers and key multilateral institutions.

"This document made absolutely clear that priority was to be given to economic integration and that all other forms of integration, including security and defense, were to support this objective," Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert with the University of New South Wales in Australia, said.

'Comprehensive partnership'

The two leaders looked upbeat during their meeting at the Oval Office, with Obama saying that Sang showed him a letter written by revolutionary Ho Chi Minh to former US president Harry Truman that voiced hope for cooperation, two decades before their traumatic war, AFP reported.

"We all recognize the extraordinarily complex history between the US and Vietnam. Step by step we have been able to establish a degree of mutual respect and trust," Obama said.

Since the normalization of diplomatic ties, bilateral trade has grown to US$24.5 billion and is expected to reach $50 billion by 2020. The US is Vietnam's largest export market, while American companies have invested $240 billion in Vietnam.

Vietnam has a long and bitter history of fighting off foreign invaders, including the Americans. But analysts say that given the longer periods of French colonialism and Chinese aggression against Vietnam, and given the strategic importance of the US in the world after 1975, it should not come as a surprise that the people and government of Vietnam are ready to put the past behind them more quickly with the US.

"The Vietnamese have learned from their own history that we all have no permanent enemies, only friends yet to be made," Kerry said in his speech at the lunch Wednesday.

A 2010 Associated Press-GfK Poll, considered "one of the most exhaustive surveys to date of contemporary Vietnamese attitudes," found that 56 percent of 1,600 Vietnamese surveyed across the country said they rarely, if ever, think of the Vietnam War, which ended on April 30, 1975.

"It is time to form a comprehensive partnership in order to further strengthen our relations in various areas," Sang told reporters at the Oval Office Thursday with Obama at his side.

He said the two sides had also talked "in details" about the long-simmering territorial dispute over the East Sea, internationally known as the South China Sea. China and several Southeast Asian members including Vietnam are getting bogged down in the dispute.

"We welcome the US support for our stance in this matter"¦and for solving the issue peacefully in the spirit of international laws," Sang said.

Since Obama announced a "pivot" toward the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region in late 2011, the US has maintained it will play a neutral role in the East Sea dispute.

But analysts say the pivot toward Asia in foreign and defense policy has already rattled the region and increased tensions between Washington and Beijing with the latter viewing it as a move to contain its military and economic growth.

Sang, who acknowledged "differences" between the two countries on human rights, said Thursday Obama had promised to visit Vietnam by the end of his second term.

At a time both Vietnam and the US are developing their relations within a larger geo-political context that will continue to shape those relations, it is important to keep in mind that even friends have differences, analysts say. 

"I think that it may be time to re-frame how we think about relations between the US and Vietnam," said Mart Stewart, a professor of history at the Western Washington University

"A new generation is in power, and young people in both countries have been shaped by experiences other than the Vietnam War. The larger world and the geo-political context for these relations have also changed, too," he told Vietweek.

"So why insist that the next step is for the US and Vietnam... to become friends? Perhaps we already are, but are discovering that it is on different terms than this narrative assumes."

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