US and Vietnam: time for normalization?

Le Duc Tho, Vietnam's chief negotiator at the Paris peace talks, recently urged the normalization of relations between his country and the United States. Clearly, talk of normalization is premature. The road to such a goal is full of domestic and international problems. Nevertheless, 10 years after the fall of Saigon, there are sound strategic reasons for at least examining Le Duc Tho's proposal. Since the end of the war, the South China Sea has quietly evolved into a superpower arena. Until after the Vietnam debacle, American power in the region was unchallenged. From US bases in the Philippines, American ships and planes patrolled the waters of the South China Sea, the Western Pacific, and had quick access to the Indian Ocean through the narrow Strait of Malacca.

West of the Philippines, the Soviets now pose a credible challenge. Operating from Cam Ranh Bay and Da Nang, former US bases in Vietnam, Soviet warships and aircraft have unprecedented strategic flexibility in the region. Prior to this development, the Soviet Pacific Fleet was of minimal concern to US strategists. Russian ships, berthed in icebound Siberian ports, were plagued by both extreme distance and bad weather.

Vietnam gives Russia both an ice-free port and access to a significant new arena. And with this access has come a new Russian emphasis on the Pacific Fleet.

The stakes in the region are undeniably high. The Strait of Malacca serves both economic and military needs, connecting the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean. Through this narrow corridor pass military and commercial vessels, including oil tankers that are the foundation of Japan's economic lifeline.

The irony is that the present unsatisfactory situation is, to a degree, a product of American foreign policy. Specifically, Vietnam's isolation from American and Western assistance has led to a growing postwar dependence on the Soviet Union, its wartime ally. Russian assistance has had a price, the most visible aspect of which has been an enormous Soviet military buildup in Vietnam.

Yet, since that buildup began in 1979, there has been substantial evidence to indicate that the Soviet-Vietnamese partnership is strained. To some observers it seems at best a marriage of convenience.

Since the end of the war there have been a number of Vietnamese attempts to improve relations with the US, a move that would lessen Vietnam's dependency on the Soviet Union. Le Duc Tho's proposal is not new; it is simply the latest.

For the US, the start of a serious dialogue with Vietnam could conceivably have a number of long-range effects. Of these, the most important could be to eventually separate the Soviet Union from a critical warm-water ally.

In addition, the removal of the Russian threat would introduce flexibility to the procecess of deciding the future of US bases in the Philippines. In the Philippine countryside, the Marxist rebellion continues to grow. Despite the obvious danger, it is unlikely the US will abandon the bases and the region to Soviet military superiority. If so, direct American involvement in defending the bases may become necessary.

To be sure, the problems of normalization cannot be overestimated. Vietnam is anathema to millions of Americans, a revulsion reinforced by that country's continuing aggression in Kampuchea (Cambodia). Furthermore, it is an attitude shared by China, a valued US ally. Yet these considerations, valid as they may be, should not obscure America's long-term interests.

Before the US dismisses Le Duc Tho's initiative, it is important to review the wisdom of current American policy, the central theme of which is the isolation of Vietnam. Such an approach does not address the problem of Kampuchea. It did, however, help guarantee the Soviet military presence -- a development that is undesirable.

Despite the difficulties, neither domestic considerations nor Chinese fears should fully determine the course of US foreign policy. If one purpose of that policy is to isolate the Soviet Union from important allies -- a goal that even the Chinese can agree with -- serious US consideration of Le Duc Tho's proposal will be a small step in that direction.

Peter Bacho, a lawyer, teaches Philippine history at the University of Washington.

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