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Vietnamese Premier Makes First U.S. Visit in 30 Years


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Vietnam's prime minister is spending this week in the United States. He is the country's first communist leader to come here since the end of the Vietnam War 30 years ago. Phan Van Khai is meeting with business leaders in Seattle today. He's meeting with President Bush here in Washington tomorrow. NPR's Michael Sullivan reports on what this visit says about two former enemies.


A few weeks ago, Vietnam celebrated the end of the war against the Americans with a huge party on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.

(Soundbite of marching band)

SULLIVAN: There were flags and floats and marching bands, but the triumphalism that often accompanies such events was largely missing.

(Soundbite of marching band)

SULLIVAN: Instead, throughout the weekend's celebrations, Prime Minister Khai spoke about reconciliation, of closing the past and looking to the future and of the need to strengthen ties with Vietnam's former enemies. Khai's trip to the US this week, says former US ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, is a huge step in that direction, 10 years after the two countries normalized relations.

Mr. PETE PETERSON (Former Ambassador to Vietnam): We're past the symbolism. We're into real meat and potatoes, and we have the opportunity to deal with very, very serious and complex issues, and we can find solutions. And that's what his mission's going to be all about.

SULLIVAN: Chief among those issues from Vietnam's perspective is expanded economic ties and Vietnam's desire to join the World Trade Organization by the end of the year. Longtime Vietnam watcher Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy says US support for Vietnam's WTO bid is crucial to Vietnam's plans for continued economic growth.

Mr. CARLYLE THAYER (Australian Defense Force Academy): That is the brass ring that they're after on this trip. If they can finalize agreements with the United States, then they can move ahead with a raft of other countries and achieve the goal they want to, to get by the end of this year.

SULLIVAN: The two sides are also expected to agree on an expansion of military ties through the Pentagon's International Military Education Training program, or IMET. The US has been keen on developing a closer defense relationship both as a way to offset China's growing military profile in the region and as part of the US effort to fight global terrorism. Analyst Carlyle Thayer.

Mr. THAYER: Well, the United States has been offering for some time access to IMET, and Vietnam has been rather reticent to do that. It's concerned about Chinese reactions. It's upset by the American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, but now over the last 18 months, they begin to signal that they see that increased strategic cooperation with the United States is in their interest, and they appear to be ready to move down that path.

SULLIVAN: In their interest in part because of Vietnam's long and often unpleasant history with its neighbor to the north, a history that includes several hundred years of Chinese occupation.

Vietnam's human rights record will also be an issue during this trip. Human rights groups, some members of Congress and many Vietnamese-American groups want the Bush administration to do more to pressure Vietnam to allow greater religious and political freedom. Earlier this year, the US put Vietnam on its list of countries of particular concern regarding religious freedom. Several congressional leaders want the administration to link any preferential trade terms to an improvement in Vietnam's human rights record. Former US ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, a onetime POW, says he is encouraged by the progress Vietnam has made on human rights so far.

Mr. PETERSON: Look what they've done. They're now recognizing basically all the Protestant churches, as I understand. They're certainly opening up and becoming more transparent. If you'll go back and look at the State Department human rights report and look at it over a period of several years rather than just the one year, the snapshot, you'll see there's been major progress made each year.

SULLIVAN: Not enough progress to satisfy some critics, but enough, many analysts say, to ensure the issue does not dominate talks nor torpedo any of the agreements expected this week. And on Thursday, the prime minister of one of the world's last communist nations will ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, another indication of just how far both Vietnam and the US have come in the 30 years since the war ended.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.