White House is debating easing or ending trade embargo against Vietnam

January 01, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Citing progress on Vietnam's efforts to determine the fate of missing Americans, the Clinton administration is moving toward easing the economic embargo against Hanoi and plans to consult Congress about it early in the new year, administration officials said yesterday.

A senior administration official said President Clinton's top foreign policy advisers would meet "very soon" to decide whether to recommend the lifting of the embargo, which was imposed after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the advisers were "clearly moving toward an easing of the embargo."

The advisers discussed a range of options last week, from partial abandonment of the embargo -- including allowing some U.S. companies to enter into contracts with the Vietnamese for a trial period -- to a total lifting of the ban.

The advisers met after Winston Lord, the assistant secretary of state for Asia, returned from a trip to Southeast Asia in mid-December with an upbeat assessment.

Mr. Lord argued in favor of taking some immediate action to ease the embargo to reward Hanoi for its help in seeking the fate of more than 2,000 U.S. servicemen who did not return from the Vietnam War.

"Lord felt there had been significant progress made and had argued that the Vietnamese were now expecting to see some kind of reciprocal gesture that would be aimed at easing the embargo," one official said. He added that the Vietnamese were not expecting full normalization of relations between Washington and Hanoi at this time.

Mr. Lord, who is on vacation, could not be reached for comment.

The trade sanctions against Hanoi have been a nettlesome issue for the Clinton administration.

As a presidential candidate, Mr. Clinton pledged that there would be no easing of the embargo until Hanoi made a "full accounting" of missing Americans. Yet that position is at odds with the administration's emphasis on expanding overseas trade improve the U.S. economy.

U.S. businesses and a number of members of Congress -- both Democratic and Republican -- have been pressing for an end to the trade embargo lest U.S. companies lose out to European and Asian competitors who are already tapping into the growing Vietnamese market and signing contracts to help rebuild the country.

Some veterans groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars have also supported the idea of closer ties with Vietnam so long as progress is being made on the prisoners of war issue.

But vocal opposition by organizations representing families of missing Americans and by other veterans groups, including the American Legion, has placed a political roadblock in the way of better relations between Hanoi and Washington.

Last week's meeting of foreign policy advisers, reported in the Washington Post yesterday, was the first time they had gathered to consider the next steps to take since Mr. Clinton eased the trade embargo in September.

At that time, Mr. Clinton permitted U.S. companies to bid for projects in Vietnam financed by international lending institutions.

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