WHEN United States and Vietnamese officials meet here next week to begin talks on settling the Cambodian conflict, executives at some large US companies will watch closely. Many in business view the dialogue as an important step toward ending Washington's 15-year-old embargo on trade and diplomatic ties with Vietnam. If the rules change, they are ready to do business there. The Bush administration insists the upcoming discussions concern Cambodia only and do not foreshadow relations with Vietnam. In fact, though, that chance is greater than at any time since North Vietnamese troops marched into Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in April 1975, defeating the US-backed south.
The US would like Vietnam to persuade the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, to support open, United Nations-run elections. Without being overly optimistic, administration officials have indicated that Vietnam's successful cooperation on Cambodia could remove the existing political obstacle to normalization.
Dozens of US firms have complained to the State Department over the past year that sanctions against Vietnam keep them out of an expanding market other countries have already begun to tap.
``It's a market with very strong potential,'' says a Citicorp executive. ``If we allow the Japanese and the Europeans to come in a decade ahead of us, and we're coming in late, then we're just going to be picking up the scraps.''
``We do have a concern about the fact that Japanese companies are not honoring their nation's sanctions,'' adds Eastman Kodak spokesman Paul Allen. ``It's a disadvantage for us.''
Many firms had profitable operations in South Vietnam prior to 1975 and would welcome the chance to return, explains Virginia Foote, director of the Washington-based US-Vietnam Trade Council, which advocates restoration of trade relations.
Karl Krapek, president of Otis Elevator, echoes the views of many about Vietnam: ``It's on the verge. Things are starting to move. We ought to think about it in our strategic plans.''
Citicorp would like to rekindle local currency business and to finance trade and investment projects; Boeing would like to sell airplanes. French companies now have an inside track in those areas. Kodak sees a good market, but one now dominated by Japanese rival Fuji Photo Film Co.
Before the Vietnam War ended, US oil firms completed extensive maps of potential offshore drilling sites in the South China Sea, information Vietnam now makes available to British, French, and Australian oil companies. Vietnam reportedly has reserved exploration areas for US companies, which can do nothing with the embargo in force.
Vietnam has streamlined its faulty, centrally planned economy with broad reform. The centerpiece is a liberal foreign investment law introduced two years ago that permits wholly owned foreign ventures to operate and to repatriate all profits.
Fully 80 percent of Vietnam's 65 million people are literate. The country's skilled labor force works for the equivalent of about $20 a month. Many in the West regard Vietnam as the next Asian boom country - provided the US lifts its embargo.
The new investment code has brought only modest response, though this is probably due more to Vietnam's crumbling infrastructure than US policy demands. Most of the 130 foreign ventures approved so far are small-scale projects worth in total an estimated $1 billion. British and French firms have the largest presence. More than half of the foreign investment is oil-related.
Taste for Coca-Cola
Washington's pressure also has not prevented Western trade with Vietnam. Stores in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are stocked with goods from Asia and Western Europe, imported with the help of Asian middlemen. The Vietnamese especially enjoy Coca-Cola, bottled in Singapore in its familiar red-and-white cans.
Though it is illegal for US firms to sign business contracts with Vietnam, talking is not a crime. Citicorp and American President Lines are among the US companies that have sent executives to Vietnam to establish informal relationships in anticipation of the day the embargo ends.