26 November 2006
Firmly moving beyond past hostilities
Arriving last week in Ho Chi Minh City, President George W. Bush, the second US president to visit Vietnam since the end of war three decades ago, was greeted by cheering crowds. Thousands of Vietnamese lined the streets of the city, formerly known as Saigon, to welcome the guest, all waving or smiling and some holding their children on shoulders.
In contrast to this, Bushís visit to Jakarta last Sunday provoked deep anger among Indonesians. Thousands of people belonging to the countryís militant Muslim groups took to the streets shouting anti-US slogans and threatening to kill Bush. Some individuals reportedly resorted to black magic and voodoo in a bid to thwart any agreement between Bush and his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
This, despite the fact that Vietnamese, not Indonesians, were the target of the US military machine in a bloody war that lasted a decade and killed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen.
The two contradicting scenes reflect the difference between two cultures. One is based on tolerance and forgiveness and, therefore, capable of bypassing dark events of past in favour of a promising future. The other is handcuffed by hatred and demagogic rhetoric, which prevents compromise or reconciliation. The latter, however, is not a genuine Indonesian culture. It is rather a culture that has penetrated Indonesian society in the last three decades as a result of growing interaction between locals and Middle Eastern Islamist groups and individuals, according to Yudhoyono and former president Abdurrahman Wahid.
The above lines serve as explanation for Vietnamís capability of being avid to learn, cooperate, and seize opportunities and of undertaking whatever is necessary to build a better future for its present and next generations without looking back at one thousand years of domination by Chinese feudalism, 16 great invasions by Chinese and Mongolian dynasties, one century of domination by French and Japanese colonialism, and thirty years of independence and unity wars against France and the US.
Vietnamís openness to the world led to establishing diplomatic or economic ties with 167 countries, wining the membership of three influential economic groupings: Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation† (APEC), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Asean Free Trade Area (AFTA) and receiving an invitation to become the 150th member of the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, the most significant aspect of its openness has been its firm move in the last ten years to strengthen and diversify cooperation with its old enemy, the United States.
There have been numerous developments with respect to US-Vietnam relations since the mid-1990s, including lifting of economic embargo in 1994, normalization of diplomatic relations in 1995, and conclusion of the Bilateral Trade Agreement (BTA) in July 2000. With former US president Bill Clintonís visiting Vietnam in November 2000, the BTA taking effect in December 2001, and Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai paying a historical visit to Washington in June 2005, bilateral two-way trade has increased, jumping to nearly US$ 7 billion last year. The US is now Vietnamís largest export market, purchasing one-fifth of the countryís total exports and US exports to Vietnam have increased by 300 percent in the past four years.
More important, however, has been the growth of US investment in Vietnam, which totaled $3 billion last year. Encouraged by factors such as diversified business opportunities, low labour costs, dynamic work force with increasingly strengthened educational system, and a relatively large consumer pool of 84 million people Ė 60 percent of whom are under the age of 30, American firms have shown greater interest in investing in Vietnam.
According to a study conducted in 2004 by the American Chamber of Commerce on Vietnamís business climate, 77 percent of members agreed that Vietnamís economy was improving, 82 percent expected profits to increase in years to come, and 90 percent voiced no concerns about the safety of themselves or their families there. Despite some reservations concerning corruption, poor infrastructure, a slow-moving bureaucracy, land acquisition issues, and taxes, there was a general agreement that a new tiger was born and that through greater financial and technical support it would grow and mirror the economic success of other Asian tigers.
It was not surprising, therefore, to see Intel, the worldís largest chipmaker choosing Vietnam, not other neighbouring countries, as a place for its largest overseas investment.
Almost coinciding with Bushís recent visit to Vietnam, the American company announced that it would invest $1 billion in the country to build a chip assembly and testing plant in a science park outside Ho Chi Minh City. Expected to begin operation in 2009, the plant would create up to 4,000 jobs.
The significance of Intelís investment, the biggest by a US firm in Vietnam, is that it will boost information technology industry in Vietnam, where 20,000 engineers currently work for about 700 software companies, and whose IT industry has recorded sales of nearly $1 billion last year. It will raise confidence in the countryís investment climate, put Vietnam firmly on the high-tech map, encourage other Western and Japanese investors to come, and possibly overcome Vietnamís reputation for being the regionís worst violators of intellectual property rights.
Dr. Abdulla Al-Madani
Academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs