The potential energy is there. The fuse is in place. The matches are in the right hands. But Vietnam will remain one of Asia’s latent economic powers, an opportunity ready to explode, until the president and the Congress agree on a political format to grant the former enemy full status in the international marketplace.
On Monday, under cover of the Israeli-PLO accord being signed on the White House South Lawn, President Bill Clinton nudged closer to the inevitable when he granted U.S. companies the freedom to bid on development projects in Vietnam that are financed by the international development agencies, including the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
The concession is an important one to Vietnam, which needs two things to assert itself as an international trader: continued infusion of capital from foreign and international banks, and the lifting of the trade embargo imposed by the United States.
U.S. policy is tentative, a mix of pragmatism and emotion, dominated by the MIA-POW issue.
President George Bush created the queue of U.S. corporations now waiting in Hanoi for normalization of relations when he authorized them to open offices in Vietnam, and negotiate and sign deals with the Vietnamese. The Bush message — do anything you want, except deliver the goods — sent PepsiCo, Bank of America, Mobil Oil and others over there, but put them on hold. Clinton has stepped aside so the Franch and Japanese could loan Vietnam money to pay off overdue loans and prime the pump at the World Bank.
Former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, who led a delegation to Vietnam in April, returned convinced that the U.S. trade embargo should be lifted. There is substantial weight to the argument that as the U.S. and Vietnam become economically entangled, this country will be able to exert greater influence on its Asian partner’s political decisions, and overcome any reluctance to be totally forthcoming on the POWs and MIAs.
Whatever action President Clinton takes to dismantle the last barrier to normalized relations with Vietnam, he will be second-guessed by Ross Perot and members of Congress who may never be satisfied by any level of evidence that Vietnam is telling all it knows about the fate of American servicemen.
Mr. Clinton has announced a four-point package of demands on Vietnam, including access to records, continued searches for remains, making connections in Laos and resolving 80 “discrepancy cases” of U.S. servicemen last known to be alive. He wants to see progress in these areas before lifting the embargo.
It is a straightforward attempt to remove reasonable doubts about the candor and cooperative spirit of the Vietnamese, and although it guarantees that he will be bitten one more time by the war that has stung most presidents since 1960, it may assure that he will be the last.