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Wednesday, April 5, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tom Plate / Syndicated columnist

Pro-business pragmatism links Japan and Vietnam

SAIGON, Vietnam — Thanks to some degree to tone-deaf foreign-policy insensitivity at the top levels of the Koizumi government in Tokyo, Japanese popularity in Asia is not exactly at an all-time high.

On the whole, recent inept Japanese diplomacy has played into the hands of those in China and Korea who conceptually and emotionally — and for domestically political reasons — remain fixed on Japan's nasty wartime past with regard to their basic (negative and at times racist) assumptions about the Japanese.

And so it came as a blessed breeze of fresh air in the otherwise overheated atmosphere of South Vietnam's largest and most teeming city to learn that, around here at least, the Japanese are very much in favor.

"In some ways," explained a friend who is very well employed in the Saigon municipal government, "the Japanese are the easiest of all our foreign interlocutors to deal with."

His explanation was clear: Vietnam is largely about getting wealthy. Japan is about getting wealthier. Thus understanding each other well, and generally agreeing to keep the petty gamesmanship to a minimum, a happy coupling of mutual convenience is engineered.

Despite amazing recent growth, Vietnam is still mired in Third World poverty. Leave the bustling streets of Saigon and less than an hour's ride away is the world that time, modernization and globalization forgot. Will Vietnam's economic development raise these people out of the past and into a more prosperous present?

This is the Vietnamese government's goal, and the Japanese are prepared to help. But they are not offering handouts, aid programs and the like once so common from the West because these efforts generally sank like dead water buffaloes in the swamp of Vietnam.

But the Japanese are prepared to offer loans, at incredibly low interest rates — "sometimes just 1 percent," explained my friend, the master negotiator who deals with the Chinese, the Koreans, and anyone who is thinking of helping the country escape from poverty.

What does Japan ask for in return? Vietnam's vote at the U.N.? The opening of a Japanese war memorial downtown? Obeisance to the Chrysanthemum Throne?

"None of this, not at all," says my friend. "We just have to use the yen in ways that help Japanese businesses in this country and the region."

This means buying Japanese goods, or helping Japanese businesses establish themselves here.

One imagines, though, that the Japanese business-master treats the lowly Vietnamese worker like a pitiful slave, eh?

"Just the opposite," explained the Vietnamese official as his sister ladled out our dinner in his home near the Saigon River: "The Japanese treat our workers with care and respect. This is the Japanese way. Vietnamese would rather work for them than well, I'd rather not say, but rather for them than some other national employers that are not so nice."

Vietnamese memories are not so short, of course. The older generation will never forget the Japanese invasion and occupation during the Second World War. On the other hand, neither will they forget the subsequent return of the imperial French, and their eventual succession by the foolishly optimistic Americans, who of course thought they knew it all and could do it all but wound up in ignominious retreat.

But instead of smarting from these offenses, and remaining buried in the hurts and injustices of the past, the Vietnamese have decided to move on. And so they work hard to have a good (if always-wary) relationship with the Chinese, as well as with the Russians and of course the Americans.

And here the Japanese are viewed as anything but future military aggressors; those days are long, long gone. All the Japanese want to do is to make money, and this is exactly what the Vietnamese want for themselves. And so the Vietnamese Communist government here opts for an apolitical, pro-business pragmatism.

At a time when the Japanese, the Chinese and the Koreans would seem to prefer to be at one another's throats, the Vietnamese take a different view to the potential benefit of all. A lot of much worse things could spread across Asia than an epidemic of Vietnamese-style pragmatism!

UCLA professor Tom Plate, a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is a veteran journalist who has worked at Time, New York, Newsday and the Los Angeles Times.

2006, Tom Plate

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