[OVERSEAS VIEW]APEC, Vietnam and North KoreaThe Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit just concluded in Hanoi was filled with symbolism and irony for American foreign policy and history, and not just at the event. From the perspective of the Republic of Korea, the summit must be counted a success.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in what turned out to be one of his last official overseas trips, went to Vietnam early as a sort of advance man for President Bush. The visit included a parade in his honor, accompanied by the playing of the U.S. national anthem. Parallels are often drawn between Rumsfeld’s dictatorial demeanor and the similar style of Vietnam War-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
Bush has gone on from the summit to Indonesia to meet with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Four decades ago, fear of communist success in Indonesia was one important reason for the drastic American escalation of the Vietnam War.
The South Korea-U.S. partnership, defined by the Korean War, was confirmed by the Vietnam War. Seoul maintained approximately 50,000 troops in South Vietnam during the height of American involvement.
Therefore, the evolving role of the Republic of Korea in particular demonstrates the succession from Cold War confrontation, and ideologically driven conventional war, to post-Cold War cooperation and profit-driven market development. Today, economic calculations clearly are paramount in the Pacific region.
The APEC summit provided an opportunity to highlight Vietnam’s economic growth. Vietnam, for understandable reasons, has long been a special case in the context of Asian economic development. Over more than three decades, war plagued the country. Before the very lengthy and costly armed conflict with the United States, there was the struggle against colonial France and the earlier occupation by Japan.
For years after Hanoi’s military victory in 1975, Vietnam was unable to turn the corner from political revolution to economic advancement. While the economic “tigers” of Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea surged, Vietnam did not. Vietnam did not join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations until 1995, nearly three decades after the creation of that regional development organization.
The summit, however, provided Vietnam a central role to highlight its progress. Summit success in turn should encourage the truly large-scale foreign investment Vietnam still desperately needs.
APEC participants were able to reach agreement on the most pressing items of business. There was concurrence on the need to continue to seek economic liberalization among the partners, and specific support for renewing the Doha round of world trade negotiations. Doha has been derailed by disagreements, largely around agriculture. Farm-related lobbies in both developed and developing countries have frustrated the process. APEC members have considerable clout, on both sides of the development divide, and may be able to kick-start negotiations.
Beyond immediate economic considerations, the summit has also been a success. There was strong commitment to multilateralism and the vital importance of working with allies and through established regional and global institutions.
The Bush administration came into office trumpeting a testament of unilateralism. After 9/11, President Bush seemed to grow ever more strident in his determination to go it alone, reminding other leaders that they were either “with us or against us.” Even before the terrorist attack, however, the American leader had publicly reprimanded Korea’s President Kim Dae-jung for efforts to open up North Korea.
There was none of the earlier Bush tough-guy talk in Hanoi. Rather, President Bush went out of his way to underscore the importance of allied influence and reiterate alliance relationships.
The summiteers not only restated support of long-term efforts toward freer trade, they also addressed military security, calling on North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons development and return to six-party talks. Representatives of generally capitalist economies, meeting in a principal city of one of the few remaining communist political systems, collectively called on the secluded leaders of another communist state to cease this very threatening military activity. There are disagreements among the allies on specific tactics, but participants ― including the Americans ―stressed areas of concord.
The Pacific region generally lacks the complex established network of economic and military regional organizations that define relationships in the Atlantic region. For this reason, APEC is especially significant. Partners in this Asia-centric organization have proven willing to expand their reach to include cooperation with explicitly military dimensions.
For decades, Cold War divisions defined relationships among nations. Today, economic incentives and related self-interest have dramatically undermined earlier ideological intensities. The Cold War became a hot war in Asia with the Korean War in 1950. Appropriately, APEC has included the current North Korean military threat in a manner which may encourage cooperation between Seoul and Washington.
by The writer is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of ‘After the Cold War.’ (Macmillan/Palgrave and NYU Press). He can be reached at
by Arthur I. Cyr