THE United States and Vietnam are engaged in talks that diplomats on both sides say could end the longstanding US trade embargo of Vietnam and establish diplomatic ties by next summer.Washington and Hanoi are closer than ever to reconciliation, Vietnam's Deputy Foreign Minister Le Mai said in an interview. "We understand each other better," he added. "We have made a step forward in the process of the normalization of relations between our two peoples." Mr. Mai met with Richard Solomon, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, at the US Mission to the United Nations Nov. 21. In six hours of talks, they discussed US terms for normalization. Mai pledged continued Vietnamese cooperation in US efforts to account for the 2,273 American prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action (POW-MIA) since the Vietnam War. He also reiterated Hanoi's support for free elections in Cambodia, scheduled for early 1993. If the Vietnamese keep these promises, says a senior State Department official, then partial diplomatic and trade relations between Washington and Hanoi could be achieved by June. The US, he added, will monitor the success of the Cambodian peace treaty signed in Paris in October. The Bush administration has said it would lift the trade embargo and exchange diplomats with Vietnam after the Cambodian agreement has been viable for six months. Full diplomatic relations would have to wait until after the Cambodian elections. Mai invited Mr. Solomon to visit Hanoi for the next session of talks. But the Vietnamese official predicted the meeting would be held elsewhere, within the next few months.
Flurry of talks Washington and Hanoi have engaged in a flurry of significant diplomatic activity since late October. At that time, US Secretary of State James Baker III, in Paris for the signing of the Cambodian pact, said Washington would permit organized tours to Vietnam for groups of Americans, including veterans and business executives. The US also agreed to lift a prohibition on Vietnamese UN diplomats traveling more than 25 miles from New York. Even President Bush has used conciliatory language toward Vietnam. In a speech to the Asia Society in New York Nov. 12, the President said the US has entered into a "period of healing and constructive cooperation" with its former adversaries in Indochina. "We envision normal relations with Vietnam," Mr. Bush said, "as the logical conclusion to a step-by-step process that begins by resolving the problems in Cambodia and by addressing thoroughly, openly, and conclusively the status of American POW-MIAs." Despite soft words, the administration clings to its controversial road map, a four-phased route to normalization unveiled last April. Vietnam has neither accepted nor rejected the road map, but the talks seem to be following its path nonetheless. Both US and Vietnamese diplomats say the first phase of the road map, which addresses Cambodia, POW-MIA's, and humanitarian issues, is complete. The second stage includes allowing US telecommunications companies like AT&T to establish links with Vietnam, perhaps before next January. Revenues would be held in escrow until the trade embargo is lifted.
US business interested American companies also could sign letters of intent with Vietnam, valid at the end of the embargo. US oil companies are especially interested in securing exploration and drilling rights off the Vietnamese coast. One diplomat likened the US-Vietnamese reconciliation to an elephant: Although it travels slowly, each move is meaningful. "One step of the elephant," he observed, "is the same as three steps of the fly." There are rumors that Mai, an expert on American affairs, will replace the current Vietnamese ambassador to the UN and eventually become Hanoi's first envoy to the US.