WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration is preparing to move toward normal U.S. relations with Vietnam before Inauguration Day in January, according to Washington-based diplomats and Indochina specialists.
"After the election, it will come," one Western diplomat said. "I think the full normalization is not very far off -- one month, two months, a few months."
The announcement Tuesday of the discovery of photographs that may provide information about U.S. servicemen missing in Southeast Asia "is a prelude to saying, 'Now we can move ahead,' " said an Asian diplomat.
Some new steps toward normal relations could come very soon -- perhaps Friday, when retired Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. briefs President Bush on his trip to Hanoi last weekend. A White House official suggested yesterday that Mr. Bush would make some sort of public statement after that meeting.
One of the earliest policy changes, a senior administration official said, would be to clear the way for U.S. companies to sign contracts to do business in Vietnam as soon as the 1975 trade embargo is lifted.
The embargo has been in effect since South Vietnam fell to the Communists. At the moment, U.S. companies cannot trade, invest, enter into contracts or even spend much money making business contacts and doing research inside Vietnam.
One small step the administration already has taken was to offer Vietnam a token grant of $25,000 for the victims of recent severe flooding.
Asked if the administration might take other, broader steps toward normal relations, such as a lifting of the U.S. trade embargo and the opening of diplomatic liaison offices in Washington and Hanoi, the senior official replied: "Not this week."
Analysts say that several different factors -- commercial, military, diplomatic and political -- are propelling the U.S. and Vietnamese governments to move as fast as they can toward normalization over the next few months.
Japan, France and other Western European governments have made it clear that they would like to lend money to Vietnam and to open the way for Hanoi to begin borrowing money from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Japanese and European companies are hoping to win contracts to develop Vietnam's industries and infrastructure, but Vietnam's economy has been stymied by its inability to get international loans.
Some diplomats believe that new strategic and military calculations also are driving the United States and Vietnam closer. Officials in both Hanoi and Washington have voiced concern about China's growing military power and about its vast territorial claims in the South China Sea.
"China wants to assert itself because it feels that right now, after the American withdrawal from the bases at Subic Bay [in the Philippines], there is something of a vacuum in Southeast Asia," said one Asian diplomat. "And the main things standing in the way [of China] are Vietnam and Indonesia."
For the last year, Indochina specialists have argued that the best possible time for the United States to begin normal ties with Vietnam would be soon after the November elections, at a time when the president could more easily withstand political pressures and criticism.