Vietnam without illusions

A KIND of winter is coming to this northernmost capital in Southeast Asia. With falling temperatures, a chill wind has risen. On some afternoons the sun defines the boulevards precisely in thin, cold light. The illumination is impersonal, the wind brisk - a climate unkind to illusions. I am here to explore scholarly exchanges and lecture on United States and Soviet policies toward Asia. As I meet with them I keep asking myself the same question: Is it in the interest of the US to have diplomatic relations with Vietnam?

My Vietnamese counterparts - social scientists - would like me to answer yes. But I have to doubt all three of the reasons I hear in Hanoi why recognizing Vietnam is in the US interest.

First is the assertion that through normalization the US can wean Vietnam from the Soviet bloc. If billions of dollars and more than 50,000 American lives could not change Hanoi's mind before, why should a far smaller amount of aid plus one ambassador do so now? The fantasy of American leverage over Vietnam has proven costly enough not to be rebelieved.

I put the question to a ranking official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: If the United States were to normalize relations with Vietnam, would your government try to reduce Soviet influence in the region - for example by asking Soviet forces to quit the naval base at Cam Ranh Bay? He refuses to give me any reason to think this would occur. Vietnam attaches no preconditions to normalization, he says; nor will we promise you anything, he implies. Given the high rate of failure of previous agreements between the two countries, I appreciate his refusal to raise US expectations.

The Soviet-Vietnamese alliance is a marriage of strictly official convenience. Among ordinary Vietnamese there is no love lost on lien xo - Soviets. Nor are the Vietnamese anti-American. In Hanoi, outside the Foreign Ministry, my conversations are devoid of propaganda. I am more interested in discussing Marxism-Leninism than are the Vietnamese I meet. They do not say so, but I think they find the subject irrelevant.

Trade and investment are a second reason why it could be in the US's interest to recognize Vietnam. My contact in the Foreign Ministry expects US businesses to lead the way; the flag will follow trade. But what does Vietnam have, I ask him, that Americans want? Vietnamese raw materials and cheap labor are more readily available elsewhere; Vietnamese manufactures are too poor in quality to attract US buyers; and the incomes of Vietnamese are too low to buy US goods. The same logic undermines the argument that the US should recognize Vietnam the better to compete with Japan. Compared with potential demand in China and actual demand in capitalist East and Southeast Asia, Vietnam's market may not be worth the time and effort required to crack it.

A third reason why normalization is said to be in America's interest is that diplomatic relations could help Washington determine the fate of the 1,757 Americans still missing in action in Vietnam. Yet it seems unwise to invent a promise that the Vietnamese government itself is unwilling to make. The US has long had an embassy in Laos, yet only in November were the two sides able to meet formally to plan the search for the 555 MIAs still unaccounted for in that country. In any event, the vast majority of American MIAs will never be found.

The one illusion-free argument for normalization from the standpoint of America's interest is this: The Vietnam war is over. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam exists. It is the most populous and militarily powerful country on the Southeast Asian mainland. Recognizing Hanoi means recognizing these realities.

It may be objected that recognition will imply American acquiescence in the continued occupation of Cambodia by Vietnamese troops. But US diplomatic relations with Moscow have not prevented the shipment of US weapons to anti-Soviet guerrillas in Afghanistan. While their ambassadors attend receptions in Hanoi, China and Thailand support anti-Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. This is how the world works. Nor need US recognition imply aid. The Australians have an embassy in Hanoi, yet they refuse to assist Vietnam bilaterally so long as the Cambodian problem remains unresolved.

Coldblooded realism is unnatural to most Americans on matters such as this. We prefer to have our patriotism or our humanitarianism appealed to. Yet as reasons to normalize with Vietnam, the Soviet challenge, the promise of trade, and the quest for lost Americans are all chimerical to a degree.

Perhaps, in the chill but clear light of winter in Washington and Hanoi - not this year, nor the next, but someday - Americans and Vietnamese can rid themselves of their illusions.

Donald K. Emmerson chairs the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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