WASHINGTON — THE expected decision by President Clinton to establish full diplomatic relations with Vietnam is likely to reverberate in Beijing as well as Boston.
The decision is widely viewed as hinging ultimately on domestic politics. Can Clinton, facing a tough reelection fight in 1996, satisfy most Americans that in normalizing ties he is doing right by 2,202 United States servicemen still missing in action (MIA) from the Vietnam War?
Has he demanded and received the fullest possible accounting of their whereabouts from communist rulers in Hanoi who humiliated US forces in a military rout two decades ago?
Mr. Clinton's aides and others say yes, that Hanoi's cooperation on MIAs has improved greatly and this will only continue if Washington fulfills its commitment to complete normalization.
But with US-China relations at their lowest point in at least six years, the move toward Hanoi could unnerve Beijing as well as MIA families who argue against recognition.
China and Vietnam have long been regional competitors.
As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said several months ago, in Southeast Asia "the strategic divisions run along the line of which nations are more concerned about Vietnam and which are more concerned about China."
"Those more concerned about China are friendly with Vietnam. Those more concerned about Vietnam are friendlier with China," he added in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
Some military leaders and other elements in Beijing view the US visa granted last month to Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui, which sent Sino-American relations plummeting, as proof Washington has a confrontational approach toward China.
In this distrusting atmosphere, in which Beijing has detained a Chinese-American citizen and stonewalled US requests for high-level talks, a new coziness with Hanoi may rankle.
US officials insist they are not aligning with Vietnam as a counterweight to China and deny that establishing ties with Hanoi will freeze ties with Beijing even more.
They say normalization, momentous as it may be in turning a page on the war's bitter legacy, is the natural progression in a process begun in 1991 by former President Bush on the condition that Hanoi withdraw troops from Cambodia, aid self-determination for Cambodia, and cooperate on MIAs.
Clinton, despite having avoided military service in Vietnam, has kept this process moving, albeit slowly. It is one area of consistency in his foreign policy, fitting with his overall goal of trying to create export markets for US business.
American firms have been eager to mine Vietnam as a market and fear they have been put at a disadvantage by the lack of full diplomatic ties and, before 1994, a trade embargo.
Experts say that even after full diplomatic relations are established it will be a long time before there can be any real strategic cooperation between Washington and Hanoi.