Moving Vietnam Forward

Article excerpt

History and politics continue to create challenges, but the Vietnam Education Foundation looks to steer a course toward a better future for Vietnam and improved relations between two former adversaries.

ON THIS, THE 3OTH ANNIVERSARY of the end of what the Vietnamese know as the American War, as we are bombarded with books, articles and TV spedals about the war, I have good news to share with you about Vietnam, the country.

Vietnam, at which the U.S. military threw every weapon in its arsenal short of nuclear weapons, is a country in which 3 million people died in a war that was ultimately about national liberation and not communist expansion. While it entered a new era of peace and unification as a poor, war-ravaged nation with leaders who admitted that "waging a war is simple, but running a country is very difficult," Vietnam is now widely viewed by the international development community as one of the developing worlds great success stories.

Vietnam and the United States are full-fledged partners in a variety of arenas. Two-way trade in 2004 exceeded $6 billion with more than $5 billion in imports to the United States and more than $1 billion in U.S. exports to Vietnam. Last year, Vietnam welcomed in excess of 2.5 million tourists, 272,473 of whom were Americans, a 25 percent increase from 2003, and second only to China. President Bush selected Vietnam as the 15th priority country for his AIDS Relief initiative with an investment of $25 million. There are more than 3,000 young Vietnamese studying in the United States and the U.S. government spends more on educational exchange programs in Vietnam than any other country. The two governments are even cooperating in counterterrorism and law enforcement.

One of the most promising yet little known embodiments of this spirit of cooperation is the establishment of the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), a creative and innovative scholarship-for-debt program that will train a generation of Vietnam's most academically gifted young people and likely transform Vietnam's scientific and technological landscape, thus contributing mightily to its development for the remainder of the twenty-first century.

VEF is a model long-term educational exchange program between the United States and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam that provides fellowships for Vietnamese nationals to study at U.S. institutions of higher education at graduate levels in the fields of physical sciences, natural sciences, environmental sciences, mathematics, medicine, and technology, including information technology; and enables U.S. professors to teach in these fields at Vietnamese institutions. In some ways, VEF is a vestige of what the Vietnamese know as the American War, raising the specter of the United States' one-time ally, the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)-a country that otherwise lives on only in the hearts and minds of its former citizens, many of whom are now part of the Vietnamese diaspora.

Setting the Stage

In April 1997, during a three-day visit to Vietnam, then secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin announced that the Vietnamese government had agreed to repay the $146 million wartime debt of the former South Vietnam. Four years earlier, Vietnam agreed in principle to assume the debt from its former enemy as part of a larger agreement that cleared the way for renewed international borrowing by Hanoi, previously blocked by Washington.

As Nguyen Manh Hoa, director of the external financial division of the Finance Ministry, noted at the time, "We had to agree on old debts so we could have new relations, such as new loans and cooperation agreements." In other words, the U.S. government pressured Vietnam, which had no choice but to swallow its pride and set aside principle for the greater good of continued improvement in the two countries' economic relationship, culminating in a bilateral trade agreement four years later.

According to the U. …