Vietnam's President Triet to Visit Washington

Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet is set to travel to Washington to discuss how the two former enemies can strengthen economic ties. Some 12 years after normalizing relations, the U.S. is one of Vietnam's largest trading partners but U.S. investments lags behind other countries.

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The president of Vietnam is visiting Washington, D.C. today. It's part of a weeklong tour that includes New York and Los Angeles. And it's the first visit by a Vietnamese leader since the end of the Vietnam War 40 years ago.

NPR's Michael Sullivan reports from Hanoi.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Strengthening economic ties between the two former enemies is the theme of President Nguyen Minh Triet's visit. Twelve years after normalizing relations, the U.S. is one of Vietnam's largest trading partners, with two-way trade now worth more than $9 billion a year. But U.S. investment in Vietnam has lagged behind that of other countries.

President NGUYEN MINH TRIET (Vietnam): (Speaking Vietnamese)

SULLIVAN: On the eve of his trip, President Triet told state-run television he wants American investors to know the Vietnamese government has done its best to change and improve conditions for investors, and that the environment for them now is very open and very advantageous. Economist Le Dang Doanh says greater economic cooperation seems a perfect fit.

Mr. LE DANG DOANH (Economist): The economic structure of the U.S. and Vietnam are complementing each other. I think Vietnam needs American banking technology, software, and Boeing aircraft. And Vietnam could sell garment, footwear, furniture, and other items to the U.S.

SULLIVAN: Doanh believes the two countries are and should be working together on what he calls a strategic partnership.

Mr. DOANH: Strategic in economic sense but also Vietnam needs to keep a counterbalance between different power. Without the U.S. the region should be dominate by a very rapidly growing superpower.

SULLIVAN: The idea of limiting China's influence in the region is one the U.S. and Vietnam agree on. Human rights is not. Vietnam has launched a crackdown on dissent since the Asian Pacific Summit in Hanoi last November and has sentenced several prominent dissidents to jail in the past several months. The crackdown drew condemnation from Washington and other capitals, and for a time it seemed as if President Triet's visit might be postponed.

Sophie Richardson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, wishes it had been.

Ms. SOPHIE RICHARDSON (Human Rights Watch): It's a real opportunity missed. I think we would rather have seen the administration take the position that the dozens of people who have been arrested and detained in the last six or eight months be released in advance of such a visit.

SULLIVAN: Instead of dozens, Vietnam released just two dissidents in the run-up to President Triet's trip, including a prominent cyber-dissident who'd been jailed for several years convicted of spreading anti-government propaganda.

Professor CARL THAYER (Australian Defense Force Academy): I think the bottom line would be that neither side wants human rights to become the major point of their relationship.

SULLIVAN: Professor Carl Thayer is a longtime Vietnam watcher at the Australian Defense Force Academy. He says human rights may not be at the top of the agenda when President Bush meets President Triet, but it will continue to be an issue.

Prof. THAYER: No doubt the two would want to shift it to the level of, you know, off-the-record dialogue between the two parties. But clearly it's not going to go away and Vietnam has got to weigh the collateral damage that could flow from non-cooperation on this issue.

SULLIVAN: Another thorny issue is the effect of the wartime defoliant Agent Orange. Vietnam says millions of people have suffered health problems due to Agent Orange. The U.S. government says more study is needed. Though both sides agreed in November to work together to address the issue, last month, President signed a bill that provides $3 million to do just that.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi.

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