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Toward a New Foreign Policy.

Key Recommendations

* Congress should pass the U.S.-Vietnam and U.S.-Lao bilateral trade agreements without delay and without additional conditions.

* The U.S., in collaboration with other countries, should work cooperatively with the Vietnamese and Lao governments to improve human and labor rights and to protect the environment.

* The U.S. should increase the humanitarian assistance it gives to Vietnam and Laos, particularly in areas directly related to the legacy of war.

Normalization of relations with Vietnam and Laos has taken place partly due to the support of a remarkable coalition of religious organizations, development and advocacy groups, veterans, business constituencies, and a handful of moderate Asian-Americans, groups which otherwise have little contact with each other. More recently, the emergence of a minority of Lao- and Vietnamese-American groups willing to endure the wrath of their hard-line leaders has been particularly impressive.

The ratification of bilateral trade agreements deserves to be viewed in a different light than the expansion of free trade areas (such as Free Trade Area of the Americas or free trade agreements with countries such as Singapore and Jordan) or the establishment of various regional and global trading arrangements (such as Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation-APEC or the World Trade Organization). The BTAs establish trade relations for the first time; the others deepen commercial ties through a process of corporate globalization. Unlike more complex agreements that seek to impose uniform rules or establish special relationships between countries, normal trade relations are a basic building block of international relations, akin to exchanging ambassadors. U.S. trade negotiator Joseph Damond agrees that the agreements are "the first step in relations, not the last word." After granting NTR to Vietnam and Laos, the U.S. should then proceed to negotiate separate agreements on development cooperation, human rights dialogue, and other issues.

The drive among certain congressional Democrats, labor unions, and citizen groups to attach labor and environmental standards to normal trade relations is well-intentioned but fails to grasp the distinctions between NTR and other agreements. This appears to the Vietnamese and Lao to be an extension of the same unfair treatment they have received from the U.S. for decades. None of the older BTAS with most other countries in the world include environmental or labor clauses. Moreover, the Vietnamese and Lao agreements have already been negotiated and signed and are waiting to be implemented; the Vietnamese have even begun carrying out certain provisions of the BTA prior to ratification, since they do not want the delay to slow down other aspects of their economic reform program. The U.S. should live up to its international commitments, not continue raising the bar for others.

Ratification of the BTAs should be followed up with additional U.S. assistance to foster social and economic development. The U.S. has a particular historical responsibility to address the legacies of war that continue to impede the Vietnamese and Lao economies. Both Laos and Vietnam now participate in the humanitarian demining program ($1.5 million to Laos and $1 million to Vietnam in FY 2000) operated by the State and Defense departments. This technical aid, while commendable and better late than never, is still paltry compared to the suffering that U.S.-made landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) inflict on civilians and children. Assistance should be expanded to include programs for landmine victims and UXO survivors as well as educational activities for children in the most affected areas. The U.S. should also contribute substantially toward treatment and rehabilitation for victims of chemical poisoning from Agent Orange and other defoliants. An agreement signed July 3, 2001, providing for collaborative research between U.S. and Vietnamese scientists is a significant step forward but is still far from sufficient. Laos also suffered from chemical warfare and should be included in U.S. and Vietnamese programs on this issue as well as in any private sector initiatives that evolve.

Passage of the trade agreements will also open the door for additional people-to-people contact between the U.S. and both countries. If presented in a culturally sensitive manner, U.S. public and private assistance can help to strengthen emerging civil society in both Vietnam and Laos. The Vietnam Education Foundation Act, passed by Congress in January 2001 with the support of Sen. John Kerry, is a good beginning. The foundation recycles Vietnam's wartime debt to the U.S. into scholarships for Vietnamese students. In addition to continuing the humanitarian, educational, and community development programs now in place, Washington might contribute to developing the legal system and rule of law in both countries, increasing the public space open to local NGOs and religious groups, and countering criminal activity and corruption. Normal trade relations will give the U.S. more, not less, leverage in addressing problem areas of human rights and governance. With patience and a sound foundation for bilateral relations, almost anything is possible to discuss; without them, the U.S. may continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Andrew Wells-Dang <> currently works as the resident director of CET Academic Programs, Inc., in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. The views expressed in this brief are his own.
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Author:Wells-Dang, Andrew
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Date:Jul 30, 2001
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