NEW YORK — AN unusual flurry of American diplomatic and legislative activity could help to end Washington's longstanding trade embargo against Vietnam and lead to normalized relations with Hanoi. Five senior United States diplomats and several Vietnamese counterparts are scheduled to meet Tuesday morning at the Vietnamese Mission to the United Nations in New York. Leading the US delegation will be Richard Solomon, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. The senior Vietnamese official will be Trinh Xuan Lang, his country's ambassador to the UN.
Today's meeting is expected to differ from the several previous encounters the two sides have had since August. Some with intimate knowledge of the agenda say the talks could break new ground on resolving the divisive Cambodian civil war and the issue of the more than 2,200 Americans who the US says have been missing in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia since the Vietnam War.
At the same time, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R) of Alaska, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading advocate of free trade, is preparing legislation calling for a halt to the economic isolation of Vietnam that the US has imposed since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. People who have seen initial drafts say the final bill could be linked to settlement of both the Cambodian conflict and the missing Americans.
Senator Murkowski's action indicates that Congress, and perhaps the White House, is feeling strong pressure from US business interests. Many large US multinationals believe that in Vietnam they are losing a potential market to foreign competition.
Southeast Asian, Japanese, and European manufacturers conduct a brisk business with Vietnam. Last year, Vietnam signed $1.4 billion in contracts with foreign companies. International Business Machines, Citicorp, General Electric, American Telephone & Telegraph, Mobil Oil, PepsiCo, Philip Morris, and Sheraton are among major US corporations that ardently lobby Congress to support an open Vietnam policy.
Lifting the trade embargo and allowing American companies to operate within Vietnam is ultimately a decision for President Bush. Such a major shift in US attitude seems unlikely in the near future, but the administration apparently is willing to offer the Vietnamese one or more new proposals aimed at moving the issue forward.
Those familiar with Tuesday's diplomatic meeting would not reveal exactly what form these proposals might take, but much will clearly revolve around Cambodia. Mr. Solomon, Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Quinn, and other US participants hope to persuade the Vietnamese that the draft Cambodian peace plan advocated by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council works to their benefit.
Vietnamese officials have said the plan, which provides a framework for UN-supervised free elections in Cambodia, is "a basis for settling the Cambodian conflict." But Hanoi fears it may return the Khmer Rouge to power.
Several US observers are concerned that the window for Vietnamese assistance on Cambodia is narrowing. Vietnamese Communist Party members are slated to convene in Hanoi this June to plot future domestic and foreign policy. The previous session in 1986 introduced market-oriented economic reforms, which have achieved limited success. Some conservative party members believe this opening to the West has been too much, too fast. Should they wrest control from more reform-minded officials, Vietnam could easil y change course.
The administration may attempt to counter this with a new overture to the Vietnamese. The meeting today may conclude with an announcement that a permanent US office will open in Hanoi to deal with the missing Americans. Such visible presence could be seen as an important step towards diplomatic normalization.
Solomon also will likely brief the Vietnamese on his meeting with Chinese leaders in Beijing last month, where Cambodia was a main topic. While there, he met with Prince Norodom Sihanouk, head of one of two noncommunist guerrilla factions aligned with the Khmer Rouge that are fighting to overthrow Cambodia's Hanoi-backed government. Cambodia was also a main talking point at later stops in Japan, Indonesia, and Thailand.
Solomon will report to the House and Senate foreign relations committees Wednesday and Thursday. Washington has stated its readiness to normalize relations with Vietnam and rescind the trade embargo once a Cambodian peace settlement is reached. Recently it offered a pair of small liberalizing gestures toward Hanoi. The Treasury Department now permits US banks to contact Vietnamese banks directly so Vietnamese-Americans can send money to relatives in Vietnam. It has also enabled private US groups providi ng Vietnam and Cambodia with humanitarian aid to receive a two-year instead of one-year operating license.