HANOI, Vietnam -- Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Co Thach hopes President-elect George Bush will open the door to Vietnam just as Richard Nixon opened the door to China.
That hope is also expressed by a growing number of Americans in both political parties. But few believe there will be a substantial thaw unless Vietnam finishes pulling its troops out of Cambodia and continues to cooperate in the search for Americans missing in action in the Vietnam War.
In an interview here in mid-November Thach, who is also Vietnam's foreign minister, talked about his hopes. He noted that after Nixon -- "famous in the '50s as an anticommunist" -- became president in 1969, he began the process of normalizing U.S.-China relations, signed a round of treaties with the Soviet Union and contributed to ending the Vietnam War.
"The improvement and normalization of relations between America and Vietnam will be to the advantage of both countries and of peace and stability in Southeast Asia," Thach said.
He stressed the potential for economic growth in the Pacific basin during the next 10 or 20 years.
But, he said, "Without peace and stability, there will be no dynamic development of the countries in this basin, especially in Southeast Asia."
The only major conflict in Southeast Asia today is in Cambodia, where Vietnamese troops support the Phnom Penh government against a resistance coalition that includes two noncommunist groups and the communist Khmer Rouge.
Vietnam has promised to remove its troops by 1990. That promise, along with several rounds of direct negotiations involving leaders of the Cambodian government and the resistance groups, has prompted cautious optimism that the 10-year Cambodian stalemate can be resolved.
In response, the State Department said in late December that once all Vietnamese troops are out of Cambodia and an acceptable political settlement is reached, the United States "would be prepared to normalize our relations with Vietnam."
U.S. officials have indicated they are pleased with Vietnam's willingness to step up the search for American MIAs. And recent official statements have carefully separated this and other "humanitarian issues" from the question of U.S.-Vietnam diplomatic relations.
The form improved relations might take is still a matter of debate.
Last summer, two Vietnam veterans, both Republicans -- Sen. John S. McCain III of Arizona, who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for nearly six years, and Rep. Thomas J. Ridge of Pennsylvania -- proposed that the United States and Vietnam open "interest sections" in each other's capitals.
These low-level diplomatic offices would, the two reasoned, make it easier for the two countries to work on humanitarian issues like the search for MIAs and emigration for children fathered by American servicemen.
The proposal foundered in August when Vietnam suspended MIA searches for a month to protest a statement by Assistant Secretary of State Gaston J. Sigur. Sigur told a congressional committee the administration remained opposed to the idea of exchanging diplomatic missions before Vietnamese troops have left Cambodia.
But in late December, the interest sections proposal was revived in a report by the Indochina Policy Forum, a bipartisan study group organized by Dick Clark, a Democrat and a former U.S. senator from Iowa.
The report suggested the exchange of interest sections would be an appropriate "measured diplomatic response" to a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, even if there is no immediate political settlement.
Once there is a settlement, Clark told National Public Radio on the day the report was released, "we'd like to see as soon as possible a normalized relationship in trade and diplomatic relations."
Thach said that for Vietnam, the form of diplomatic initiatives -- whether interest sections are set up first, or whether the United States waits until it is prepared for full diplomatic relations -- is not important.
"If the form (of interest sections) is only to calm down the aspirations of both sides to have better relations or to delay bigger steps, it is bad," Thach said. But if interest sections whet people's appetites for moving to full relations, they could be good.
The Reagan administration has not embraced conservative suggestions that the United States add to its list of conditions for improving relations with Vietnam.
The Heritage Foundation's Kenneth Conboy, for example, has argued that Vietnam needs to cut its army of more than a million in half before Washington even begins to reconsider relations with Hanoi.
Vietnamese leaders say that, in any case, their army is not intended as a threat to the United States or its Southeast Asian allies.
"Our armed forces are large because we must contend with a foe much larger than us," said Tran Cong Man, editor in chief of the army daily Quan Doi Nhan Dan, in a clear reference to China.
Man said Hanoi already has begun to reduce troop levels by a process of attrition -- recruiting only about seven new soldiers for every 10 who complete their military service.
If tensions with China are reduced, he indicated Vietnam might return to its 1975 plan to cut its armed forces to about 200,000.
Meanwhile, he said, many units in uniform are not actually performing military duties on a daily basis. They are working in factories or on farms, held in reserve in case there is a military crisis.
Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida
Published Jan. 12, 1989
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