Time for a new American relationship with Vietnam

ALMOST 15 years after the Vietnam war, Southeast Asia remains a region of major humanitarian, strategic, and economic concern to the United States. Nearly 2,400 American servicemen are unaccounted for in Indochina. More than 1 million Cambodians died under Pol Pot's ruthless Khmer Rouge regime, which came to power in 1975 and was overthrown by Vietnam in late 1978. A decade later, 100,000 Vietnamese troops still occupy Cambodia. A Soviet naval buildup in Vietnamese bases has bolstered Moscow's ability to project power in Southeast Asia. The US has a strategic interest in the resolution of the Cambodian conflict and in preventing Soviet and Vietnamese expansion from upsetting the region's equilibrium.

The years since the war have also seen the rise to regional prominence of the noncommunist states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei - whose economic and political development has far surpassed that of communist Indochina. As a group, ASEAN nations have become our seventh-largest trading partner, and they have played the central role in Indochinese diplomacy; their continued success serves US economic and foreign policy interests.

Over the past two years, Vietnam has tried to improve its relations with the West. The US, which has no diplomatic aid or trade ties with Hanoi, has conditioned normal relations upon a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia and further progress on missing servicemen.

Since the war, Vietnam and Laos have returned the remains of roughly 200 Americans, only a small fraction of the total still missing. Some Americans believe US soldiers are in Vietnamese prisons. Vietnam has denied this, but has periodically curtailed or terminated cooperative efforts to locate the remains of US soldiers.

Progress on the Cambodian conflict has also been slow. After two decades of war, mass murder, and destitution, Cambodia desperately needs to return to its earlier neutral and democratic status. A political settlement is not just a humanitarian imperative; it is also the key to stability in this tense region. An enduring solution requires a total Vietnamese withdrawal and the prevention of a return to power by the Khmer Rouge.

Hanoi has announced a withdrawal of all its troops by 1990, leaving the current Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government to confront a rebel coalition by itself. The Khmer Rouge, the most powerful faction in the coalition, receives all its military and financial support from China. The US has provided the two noncommunist factions with some $3 million annually in nonlethal aid; a covert US program is also reported to have supplied an additional $12 million annually.

In recent months, Hanoi has indicated that a final pullout from Cambodia could depend upon assurances that the Khmer Rouge do not regain power. The ASEAN nations and the noncommunist rebel factions share this concern but are wary of endorsing an explicit linkage. The US and China insist that a Vietnamese withdrawal should be the unconditional first step in any diplomatic solution. Thus far Vietnam has withdrawn only a small number of troops.

Representatives of the coalition, the Cambodian regime, and Vietnam met last July for the first time. These ASEAN-sponsored talks revealed some convergence among proposed formulas for a political settlement. All the participants profess support for some form of coalition government. All also vow support for measures to prevent the Khmer Rouge from regaining power. The parties remain sharply divided, however, over the pace of the Vietnamese withdrawal, the composition of a transitional government, and the role of other countries in monitoring an agreement.

The US can do several things to advance a settlement. First, we must press the Chinese to terminate their military assistance for the Khmer Rouge. We should seek support in this regard from nations like France and Japan, whose relations with China are closer than ours. Second, we must encourage the Soviets to continue to press the Vietnamese to withdraw. The Soviets should use Vietnam's dependence on them for leverage.

Third, to sustain pressure on the Vietnamese and help counter the Khmer Rouge, the US must do more to strengthen the noncommunist resistance. We should increase our nonlethal assistance and consider whether to supply arms to these forces, who, like the rebels in Afghanistan, are resisting a foreign occupation. Fourth, we should strongly support the diplomatic efforts of our ASEAN allies, who have taken the lead in promoting a political settlement in Cambodia. ASEAN's proposal for an international peacekeeping force to guarantee a Cambodian settlement has been backed by nearly all of the parties to the conflict and deserves active US support.

Finally, we should reassess our relations with Vietnam. A new relationship makes sense, but responsibility for promoting that relationship rests as much with Hanoi as with Washington. This may be an opportune time for policies that mix continued pressure with rewards for progress on missing US servicemen and diplomatic concessions in Cambodia. One inducement could be the establishment of interests sections in each other's capital, as proposed by some members of the US Congress.

The US withdrawal from Vietnam should not affect our role as a major player in Southeast Asia. We cannot ignore these interests and should seek to promote them in the affairs of this important region.

Lee H. Hamilton (D) of Indiana is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East.

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