U.S. to begin negotiations with Vietnam

By Ken Goze

Washington’s annoncement last week of preliminary normalization talks with Vietnam is a small, long-overdue step toward a thaw in the 16-year-old cold war with the tiny communist nation, two NIU Southeast Asian experts said.

Political Science Professor Brantly Womack said the announcement was simply a statement that the U.S. is willing to begin negotiations within a month.

The announcement was made after the historic signing by 19 nations of a peace treaty ending the two-decade Cambodian civil war. The treaty also symbolically ended Vietnam’s involvement in Cambodia that began with a 1978 campaign to drive the genocidal Khmer Rouge from power.

Womack said the Cambodian settlement removed a large stumbling block in U.S.-Vietnamese relations, but normalization remains uncertain.

“On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine what serious problems there could be, but the wording is such that it’s all up to the U.S. interpretation whether Vietnam is cooperating,” Womack said.

Womack said U.S. policy toward Vietnam has been one of vindictive isolation since the fall of South Vietnam to communist forces in 1975.

“We should have done this years ago. We have been fighting a passive war with Vietnam since the war ended. You cannot make a telephone call to Vietnam, although this is changing, because it violates the Trading With the Enemy Act,” he said.

Womack said the policy of isolation, spurred on in part by leftover Cold Warriors in Washington, has ignored changes in Vietnam.

“It’s a different country now. Since the U.S. signed the Paris Peace Treaty in 1973, half of the population has been born,” he said.

In addition, almost all countries, including France and China, who each fought Vietnam, have established diplomatic ties.

Womack has taught about the area since 1975, and made four trips to Vietnam.

Political Science Professor Clark Neher said isolation eventually also will hurt the U.S. economically. With a large, cheap, highly disciplined labor force, Vietnam is a potential hotspot for manufacturing, although the country lacks the infrastructure such as roads, port facilities and banks needed to attract quick investment.

“It will take years to improve the infrastructure enough to attract business, but you’ve got to start. Unless you believe it’s in everybody’s interest to keep Vietnam an impoverished nation, with the people suffering, you’ve got to change our policy,” Neher said.

Neher has spent about seven years in Southeast Asia, written several books and was invited to make presentations to Congress.