Vietnam: For people-to-people solidarity

September 7, 2009

The Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nong Duc Manh will visit Australia from September 6 to 9 at the invitation of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to discuss upgrading bilateral relations to that of a "comprehensive partnership".

Over the past five years, trade between the two countries rose at an average of more than 20% a year, reaching $8 billion in 2008. This makes Vietnam Australia's fastest growing trading partner in ASEAN. However, the impact of the global economic recession nearly halved the volume of trade between the two countries in the past year.

Vietnam is Australia's fifth largest recipient of overseas development aid. An estimated $106 million is to be spent in 2009-10. But because of Australia's military support for the US in its 15-year war against Vietnam — in which 3-4 million Vietnamese were killed and the US and its allies dropped more bombs than in all of World War II — morally much more aid is owed by way of reparation.

A lot of media coverage was given to the return, on August 31, of the remains of the last two Australian armed forces personnel — Canberra bomber pilots — who went missing in action in the Vietnam War. But none of the articles mentioned the death and damage inflicted on the Vietnamese people.

Operating as part of the US Air Force's 35th Tactical Fighter Wing, Australia's Canberra bombers flew just 6% of the Wing's sorties but inflicted 16% of the damage.

Overall, 11,963 sorties were flown by the Canberra bombers in Vietnam and 76,389 bombs were dropped. Two Canberra bombers were lost.

Australian military casualties were 521 killed and 2398 wounded, but the many high-altitude bombing raids by the Canberra bombers would have probably inflicted far higher casualties.

Although AusAID's programs in Vietnam include support for infrastructure, education and training, water and sanitation, and poverty reduction among ethnic minority groups, Australian governments — Liberal and Labor — seek to advance Australian business interests through the aid program.

For example, Australian building contractors have enjoyed big contracts in several infrastructure projects funded by Australian aid to Vietnam.

Education is Australia's third-largest export earner and is the single largest service export to Vietnam, worth $465 million in 2008, up 63% from the previous year.

In 2008, there were 16,000 student enrolments in Australian education institutions, and a further 14,000 students took Australian education and training courses in Vietnam. Most are paying thousands of dollars a year to study here as the number of Australian scholarships to Vietnam is very low. It was recently increased from just 150 to 175 a year.

As Australian trade minister Simon Crean put it: "There are opportunities in Vietnam for Australian companies … As Vietnam's population grows and income levels rise, we are seeing changing consumption patterns, and the domestic industry is unable to keep pace.

"For Australian agribusiness, this is creating new opportunities not only for meat and dairy products, but in livestock, cattle feed, irrigation systems and dairy equipment."

Australian aid is also heavily geared towards promoting neo-liberal economic "reforms" in recipient countries.

During his visit to Vietnam in July, Crean announced a $12 million contribution to phase two of the "Beyond WTO" program and more technical aid and capacity building to help Vietnam implement its commitments under the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement (AANZFTA)

The AANZFTA is the largest free trade agreement Australia has signed. It commits Vietnam to lower import tariffs to make Australian exports more cost competitive.

Foreign minister Stephen Smith says Vietnam's substantial opening of its financial sector to foreign participation has been "crucial to boosting bilateral investment".

Examples of this are the significant investments in Vietnam by Australia's ANZ Bank and Commonwealth Bank.

As a poor and still war-ravaged country with a population of more than 86 million, the Vietnamese government is under huge pressure to make economic concessions to global corporations and the richer and more powerful countries.

The duty of all supporters of global justice is to pressure our government to base its relations with countries like Vietnam on the basis of people-to-people solidarity and not the narrow self-interest of Australian big business.

[Peter Boyle is the national secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective.]

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