It's Time for New Thinking on Vietnam

FOR more that 15 years, United States-Vietnam relations have been frozen in enmity and isolation. The scars created by the Indochina war prompted a US-led international embargo to punish Vietnam. These sanctions are still in place, even though most nations ignore them. It is time for a change.

The US is virtually alone in prohibiting trade with Vietnam. Foreign competitors are positioning themselves for a promising Vietnam market, including development of its lucrative off-shore oil tracts. The best construction contracts, banking concessions, oil leases, and consumer markets may go to our competitors.

Today, Vietnam has widespread poverty, a steady exodus of people, and human and environmental deprivation matched in the region only by neighboring war-torn Cambodia.

These dreadful symptoms are testimony to a failed system in need of profound reform. The US can help lessen this human suffering by encouraging reform.

During my visit to Hanoi last August, I learned that market economic principles had already seeped into official thinking, especially in the agricultural sector. The liberal reforms introduced in the late 1980s, for example, were responsible for moving Vietnam from a net rice importer to the world's third largest rice exporter.

We should encourage these trends toward market economics through engagement with the Vietnamese reformers, instead of continued disengagement.

One of the core elements of the new world order articulated by President Bush contends that friendly economic competition among nations can be a healthy alternative to military confrontations. Trade and commerce are closely linked with traditional security concerns.

In our relations with other countries, American self-interest in the new order argues the need for new attitudes of increased trade. There must be new instruments of policy rooted as much in carrots as sticks.

Early efforts to improve relations in the late 1970s were dashed by Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia. Our policy rightly conditioned improved ties with Hanoi on its withdrawal of forces from Cambodia and on cooperation on POW/MIA issues.

When Vietnam's forces were pulled out of Cambodia last year, we then conditioned improved relations on Hanoi's cooperation in fostering peace in Cambodia and on resolving outstanding POW/MIA matters.

There are sound foreign policy reasons for following this course. Hanoi must cooperate in the Cambodian peace process and must provide tangible progress in the POW/MIA cases. Absent real progress on both, it will be difficult to shift US policy.

But there are compelling arguments for revising US policy toward Indochina. We should build on the lessons of Eastern Europe, where Western economic and cultural presence helped hasten democratic change and accelerate the demise of centrally planned economies.

Exposure to Western ideas and American capitalism, through example, can subvert communist control. Our self-imposed isolation from Vietnam - intended to extract favorable behavior - now amounts to economic and political self-denial.

It is time to modify regulations restricting American business and related activities. This should be followed by a lifting of the embargo on non-strategic trade, and then by movement toward normalization of ties.

At each step, we should judge whether these unilateral initiatives prompt reciprocal concessions by Hanoi in the areas of interest to us: POW/MIAs, human rights, Cambodia peace, and economic and political reform.

Our Vietnam war is over. It has receded further in the aftermath of the Gulf war. The new world order calls for reshaping priorities, with enhanced economic interaction that furthers our goals of spreading democracy and creating new opportunities for Americans.

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