ON his historic visit to Hanoi, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher answered a journalist's question about China. Was the US, the reporter asked, trying to contain Chinese ambitions through dealings with one of Beijing's regional rivals? Mr. Christopher replied that the administration normalized relations with Vietnam because it concluded that it served America's best interests.
Though the decision to normalize ties with Hanoi may not have been directed against China, Christopher was no doubt reminded of China throughout his two-day visit.
Vietnam, for example, is pressing for most-favored-nation trading status. It is also looking for support from the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
Hanoi may eventually get what it's after, but it will first have to face a GOP Congress with much to say about its human rights record. Some veterans and families of missing servicemen also stand in opposition.
We've said on this page that the US must persuade, not browbeat, Beijing into internationally acceptable behavior; the same holds true for Vietnam.
Christopher moved in this direction during his trip. He described for a group of students the democratic changes that have swept parts of Southeast Asia and noted that Vietnam was far behind. He linked progress in human rights to Vietnam's hopes of joining Asia's market economies.
Christopher has his work cut out for him: Vietnam's foreign minister said Hanoi was willing to continue talks on human rights but not as a condition for achieving MFN status.
In response, the US should continue to point out the stumbling blocks to economic development in Vietnam, including, but not limited to, Hanoi's ban on political dissent and its lack of trade and investment laws.
On the sensitive issue of missing servicemen, the US should be equally clear. Christopher indicated that Vietnam's continued help in the search for MIAs would determine how rapidly economic ties would develop, and the Vietnamese agreed to cooperate. The US must hold them to this promise.
Normalizing relations was an important first step. To reap the benefits, Vietnam has to be willing to take the equally important next steps.