Secretary of State Warren Christopher urged Vietnam's postwar generation Sunday to make a "giant leap" toward democratic and free-market reforms, warning that improved U.S.-Vietnam relations were "not guaranteed" without those changes.
He called on the nation's youth to nurture independent political voices in this one-party state and to reforge the principles of Vietnamese independence, even as they repair the lingering damage the country suffered to attain it."Each of you ought to have the right to help shape your country's destiny, as well as your own," Christopher told about 300 university students and young professionals.
"The key to success in this rapidly changing world is the freedom to own, to buy and to sell; the freedom to participate in the decisions that affect our lives," he said.
A failure to recognize that, Christopher said, could short-circuit plans for improving U.S.-Vietnam trade and investment arrangements critical to the country's development.
"While further progress is possible, it is not guaranteed," Christopher said. "(Vietnam) should move beyond just opening its doors."
Vietnam, a one-party communist state with no free press, no independent judiciary and little tolerance for political dissent, has sought for the past eight years to adopt free-market economic principles without taking parallel steps toward democratic reform.
That path must be altered if Vietnam is to thrive, Christopher suggested. "Repression entrenches poverty," he said.
Vietnam's shift away from a centrally planned economy has critics, however, among conservative party cadres. Still, Christopher said, those reforms must be accelerated.
"Look at economic reform as a passage over a ravine," he said. "You cannot do it by taking several little steps. Only one giant leap will get you across."
Christopher underscored Washington's hope in Vietnam's postwar generation - two out of three Vietnamese are age 25 or under - to set aside the painful past and move forward into a more promising future.