WHILE headlines focus on tensions with North Korea and trade decisions about China, the United States is quietly moving toward a more normal relationship with a long-standing Asian adversary: Vietnam.
Following February's lifting of the Vietnam trade embargo, the Clinton administration is now preparing to exchange liaison offices with the Communist-run government in Hanoi. Readying space suitable for the State Department in the Vietnamese capital may be difficult, but doors could swing open for business by late summer.
``It's basically administrative details that are being taken care of,'' one official says.
As the US edges closer to full ambassador-level relations with a nation it fought bitterly on the battlefield, the nature of the issues the two talk about will inevitably change.
Hanoi's treatment of the human rights of its own citizens is likely to become a crucial factor in determining the speed with which the relationship between the two nations deepens. Efforts to account for the remains of soldiers missing in action (MIAs) and possible US prisoners of war (POWs) have been central to US-Vietnamese discussions and the search will remain important.
An analogy is made to China, where the US has tried - successfully or not - to combine an economic relationship with political pressure to improve the lot of citizens of a communist regime.
The immediate aftermath of North Vietnam's conquering of South Vietnam in 1975 saw widespread arrests and political repression. Things have improved since the mid-1980s, say US officials and human rights activists. But Vietnamese officials still have a long way to go.
``It's clear they still have very serious problems,'' says Dinah PoKempner, a Human Rights Watch Asia expert. ``The overall trend is the releasing of long-term prisoners. But political dissent is still harshly punished.''
Ms. PoKempner is concerned, for instance, about the case of Doan Viet Hoat, a professor of English and former vice chancellor at a famous Buddhist university in Saigon. Sentenced to 20 years in prison for publishing an underground newsletter that discussed the possibility of democracy, Dr. Hoat has continued to attempt to speak out politically. He has now been placed in isolation somewhere in the Vietnamese prison system, says PoKempner. His family has not heard from him since February.
Another serious issue for human rights activists is the Vietnamese crackdown on the country's Unified Buddhist Church. The church's leader, Thich Huyen Quang, has been under house arrest for more than a decade. Last year, the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk in a protest suicide at a pagoda in Hue prompted anti-government demonstrations, and a subsequent roundup of monks by Vietnamese police.
Vietnam's leaders are sensitive to this issue because self-immolation by Buddhist monks was a powerful protest symbol against corruption in the former South Vietnamese government. Monks were a crucial part of the toppling of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.
``Their revolt goes right to the heart of the legitimacy of the present regime,'' PoKempner says.
PoKempner and other activists feel that the US, up to this point, has underplayed the importance of human rights, while focusing on the emotionally charged POW/ MIA issue. But the US government, for its part, says it has already begun placing more emphasis on Vietnam's human rights record.
The State Department's annual human rights report lists Vietnam among those countries that continue to restrict freedom of speech and association sharply. Last year, Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord said Vietnam had agreed to a high-level dialogue on issues of human rights. That dialogue, however, has yet to officially begin.
Reports from the region indicate that Mr. Lord will travel to Hanoi for talks in the summer - probably early July. As Lord would be the highest ranking official to travel to Vietnam since President Clinton officially lifted the trade embargo in February, the trip would mark an important step toward a less-adversarial relationship.
Besides POW/MIA questions and human rights, Lord may well address the problem of frozen assets and war claims. Vietnam lists assets of about $290 million now frozen by US institutions. The US has some $230 million in claims against Hanoi, largely for private businesses seized when the North overran the South.