Aid to Vietnam

October 16, 1991

Editorial: Aid to Vietnam

Late on October 9, federal cabinet adopted a recommendation to resume direct aid to Vietnam. While this step toward normalisation of relations is welcome, there are worrying signs that — in terms of aid — the decision is more form than substance.

Following the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam in the early '70s and liberation of Vietnam in 1975, it was expected that the Australian government — as it was morally obliged to do — would provide significant compensation for the war damage it had inflicted.

This did not occur. Then in 1979, the Fraser government cut the already minimal aid, supposedly because Vietnam sent troops into neighbouring Cambodia.

The Vietnamese intervention was justified in both international law and in terms of humanity. The Khmer Rouge regime had launched numerous armed attacks across the Vietnamese border and rejected Vietnam's call for United Nations observers to police the border. More importantly, the Khmer Rouge were engaged in a campaign of mass murder comparable to the Holocaust.

Yet both Liberal and Labor governments have followed the United States in using the overthrow of Pol Pot as a pretext to isolate and punish Vietnam.

The cynicism of this policy was revealed for all to see in September 1989, when Vietnam withdrew its remaining troops from Cambodia. Instead of restoring aid as promised, the Hawke government now demanded that Vietnam use its influence to pressure the Cambodian government into a "peace agreement" that would allow the Khmer Rouge at least a share of power in Phnom Penh.

Now that the US and China appear to have decided that they have extracted the maximum possible concessions from Cambodia, the Hawke government is to send a mission to Vietnam led by minister for trade and overseas development, Neil Blewett.

With Australian capitalists looking to get an edge, it seems likely that business assistance will take priority over any humanitarian assistance. Press reports indicate that "aid" might take the form of "concessional financing" — a subsidy to Australian business as much as a benefit to Vietnam.

While welcoming this latest step, supporters of the restoration of aid to Vietnam will have their work cut out pressuring the government to provide a significant increase in humanitarian aid.

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