SIXTEEN years after its officials fled their besieged embassy in Saigon, the United States plans this month to open an official bureau in the capital.The US bureau, which will be in a small hotel overlooking a tranquil lake near the center of Hanoi, would fall far short of being an embassy or signaling recognition of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which is still classified as an enemy under US law and suffers from a US-led economic embargo. But the posting of two US military officials here will carry both symbolic and practical significance by indicating a narrowing of differences between the two adversaries. The bureau, which both sides agreed upon in April, will make it easier for the US to conduct the difficult task of searching for the remains of US soldiers considered to be missing in action (MIA) during the US-Vietnam war. That task has been accelerating since 1987, when MIA searchers were first allowed to make short trips into Vietnam and, in tandem, the US first began to support small-scale private humanitarian aid for Hanoi. "The cooperation between the two countries on MIAs has been good so far," says Dang Nghiem Bai, head of the American desk at the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry. Along with the decision to open the bureau, the US announced in April a program of $1 million in official humanitarian aid to Vietnam. A last-minute dispute, however, has threatened to delay the bureau opening. Washington has demanded that the two US officials be subject only to US law if they are charged with a crime. Mr. Bai said this minor issue would likely be resolved soon, although the dispute reflects lingering mutual distrust. The last permanent US presence in Hanoi was in 1955, just after Communist Vietnamese defeated the Army of French colonizers and began to rule North Vietnam. Three decades later and after a long war, the US Embassy in noncommunist South Vietnam was abandoned in late April 1975 as North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon to unify the country. Although the plan for an MIA office in Hanoi has encouraged Vietnamese officials, they nonetheless are disheartened by a US list of conditions given to them on April 9 that spells out for the first time exactly what steps Washington expects of Hanoi before ties can be normalized.
Tougher conditions The list, known as a US "road map," goes beyond previous verbal conditions. Officials here say the US added new and difficult conditions and has not made good on past verbal promises to consider recognition after Hanoi pulled its troops out of Cambodia in 1989. "Those people who lost the war are still stubborn in their mind about normalization with Vietnam," says Bai. He says the road map was designed not as a realistic solution but as an attempt by the Bush administration to answer heightening pressure from some US businesses and a few members of Congress to end the embargo. The road map also pins down the US position as the pace of negotiations among four Cambodian factions has quickened. In late June, the factions agreed to set up a joint office in Phnom Penh, with resistance leader Norodom Sihanouk expected to visit the capital soon. Phase 1 of the US "road map" requires Vietnam to sign the so-called "Perm-5" agreement, aimed at settling the Cambodia conflict. The agreement, which would lead to elections under United Nations control, was signed last fall by the US, China, the Soviet Union, France, and Britain. Vietnam ousted the Khmer Rouge from Cambodia in 1978 and helped to install a friendly Communist regime. It has since suffered hostile ties with both China and the US. Phase 1 also asks Vietnam to "convince" the Cambodian regime to accept the agreement, although Hanoi officials say they have no sway over the Phnom Penh regime. In addition, it calls for the release of about 120 officials of the former regime in South Vietnam who are in "reeducation camps" in Vietnam. Even though thousands of others have been freed, the remaining inmates are considered by Hanoi to be the most violent and incorrigible. "They must profess their crimes and apologize to the people in their districts," says Bai. "They killed not just 10 or 20 people, but more. And they continue to say again and again that they were right." Also, Phase 1 calls for Vietnam to cooperate in resolving cases of US soldiers "last known alive" and to agree to resolve all remaining MIA cases "with the target of completing the work in the next 24 months and longer, if the US determines it would be helpful to achieving the fullest possible accounting." The next three phases of the road map specify further steps on a Cambodia settlement, as well as a final resolution on all MIAs "readily available" to Vietnam. Compliance with each phase would progressively raise US ties and lead to piecemeal lifting of the embargo, including an end to a US veto of aid to Vietnam from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Resolving MIA cases The road map hints, as do many US officials, that Vietnam already knows of many MIA remains and that hundreds of cases could be resolved within a few months' time. Since 1974, Hanoi has returned 452 sets of remains, of which 252 have been identified as US personnel. In late June, 11 Vietnamese technicians visited an MIA processing facility in Hawaii for training. US officials admit that there is "no magic number" on how many of the estimated 1,700 MIA remains must be returned. Rather, they ask Vietnam to set up a "process of trust" in the search process. The US has also asked for access to Vietnam's war records that might be helpful in locating potential MIA sites. But, says Bai, "not even our old commanders can remember who was in charge of the records," and many reports of downed US warplanes were never recorded. He says that the US has not provided any of its records that might help Vietnam to find its own 100,000 MIAs. "Vietnam wants credit for returning MIAs," says a Western official in Bangkok, "and resents doing so much with nothing in return. "Hanoi fears the US will continue to raise unrealistic demands," he says, "and there is no safe way for them to jump-start relations with the US." The diplomat adds, however, that the embargo has provided a useful excuse for the Communist Party in answering rising domestic criticism of its economic mistakes. Keenly committed to keeping a friendly regime in Cambodia, Hanoi has not accepted or rejected the Perm-5 plan nor the road map, hoping that continued talks on both matters might eventually erode the will of its opponents. "The embargo has already failed as a tool for pressure," says Bai, despite slow economic development here. "The war was not the biggest mistake, but rather a policy of waging a big-power game. Pax Americana is no longer as big as it was in the past."