Open Lines to Hanoi

January 31, 1995

The opening of liaison offices between the United States and Vietnam in Washington and Hanoi last Saturday was welcome and overdue, almost a year after President Clinton announced the intention to do it.

This stops way short of an exchange of ambassadors and it still does not give U.S. business the same jump-start in Hanoi enjoyed by Asian and European rivals. But it is a step in the long-drawn-out, long-postponed normalization process. Other steps should come.

The first beneficiary should be the effort to gain more information on Americans missing in action in Vietnam more than two decades ago. A liaison office for that purpose is already established, but the stronger the relationship and the greater the American presence in that country, the easier information will flow.

The second beneficiary should be diplomacy. The U.S. and Vietnam have common interests to discuss, particularly keeping the peace in Southeast Asia. One of these is Cambodia, where the U.S. and Vietnam share a view of the Khmer Rouge danger and the legitimacy of the government. Another is the South China Sea, where conflicting claims of several nations to small islands and territorial seabeds threaten violence. The U.S. can talk to China and Taiwan and ought to be able to talk to Vietnam as well when incidents flare.

And third is the fact that a truly normal relationship with Vietnam, when it arrives, will give U.S. oil, construction and other firms a chance at the action in Vietnam's development plans, despite the long head-start of firms from countries that never had any hang-ups about dealing with Vietnam.

This does not mean the U.S. and Vietnam are likely to be close, soon. Vietnam is an unrepentant Communist regime hanging onto a monopoly of power and communication while trying to introduce market forces and foreign investment to the economy. So, for that matter, is China. There is no reason -- including the legacy of the Vietnam war -- why relations with Vietnam should not become as correct as relations with China.

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