Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai leaves Sunday for an official visit to the United States, the first by a Vietnamese leader since the end of the Vietnam War 30 years ago. Mr. Khai is due to meet with President Bush and discuss his country's hopes to join the World Trade Organization.
The last time a Vietnamese leader visited the United States, he was representing a country that no longer exists. It was the late 1960s, and Vietnam was engulfed in war between the U.S.-backed South and the communist North. Then-South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky flew to Washington to meet with Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.
Four decades later, and 30 years after the Vietnam War ended in a victory for the North, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai is headed for Washington to meet with President Bush, the first such visit to the United States by a leader of a Vietnam that is united under communist rule.
Relations between the one-time enemies have changed dramatically since they formally established ties just 10 years ago. Though still officially communist, Vietnam has embraced market reforms, and is experiencing an export-driven boom with 7 percent GDP growth, thanks in part to trade with its former American enemy. U.S. embassy spokesman Lou Latner says the Khai visit will celebrate this economic partnership.
"The United States is now the number-one trading partner of Vietnam and we're proud of that and we look forward to even bigger and stronger economic ties," said Mr. Latner.
Mr. Khai begins his visit in Seattle, where he is expected to meet with Microsoft chief Bill Gates, and also sign a contract to buy four Boeing 787 planes for the Vietnam Airlines fleet. In Washington, he will discuss Vietnam's hoped-for entry into the World Trade Organization, which requires a bilateral agreement with the U.S.
President Bush in return is expected to raise some of the main sticking points in relations, notably Vietnam's human rights record, including reports that the government is oppressing evangelical Christian groups that won't submit to official oversight.
Whatever disagreements remain, relations between Vietnam and the United States have come a long way since the end of the war. Mr. Latner says the visit shows that the bitterness of the conflict is fading, if not forgotten.
"It's not buried, but it's in the past and we're trying to be pragmatic about it and we are looking forward to the future," he said. "And we can live with our past and move on."
As evidence of the new relationship, Mr. Khai is expected to agree to closer military and intelligence ties, possibly even sending Vietnamese military officers to be trained in the United States. It is a far cry from the days of the war, and a sign that even bitter enemies can find common ground with time.