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Vietnam: The Door Opens a Little More : In now-classic style, Clinton moves very cautiously toward Hanoi

September 20, 1993

Good morning, Vietnam--well sort of.

President Clinton relaxed the American trade embargo against Vietnam, but he stopped well short of lifting the ban. Nevertheless he did ease restrictions against doing business with Vietnam by allowing U.S. firms to take part in projects financed by international lending institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

It's a small but noteworthy step--Clinton's second since July--to normalize relations with Vietnam. The United States is alone in sticking to the embargo, which was slapped on Vietnam when American troops left in 1975.

U.S. interests have been forced to sit on the sidelines as companies from other nations lapped up business with Vietnam, which like the rest of Southeast Asia is on a fast track toward economic development and modernization.

The Administration understandably is taking a deliberate, careful approach to balancing commercial interests--U.S. companies are itching to cash in on Vietnam--against the sensitive concerns of families of U.S. military personnel missing in action. The gradualness of the change takes into account that Vietnam's communist regime had not been very cooperative on the POW-MIA issue until recently. The Vietnamese need to do more to convince the Administration and affected families that they are indeed working to bring unanswered American concerns to a conclusion.

For now, though, allowing companies to participate in Vietnamese projects that are internationally financed makes sense. It was the logical follow-up to the Administration's decision in July not to oppose efforts led by the French and the Japanese to help Vietnam refinance its debt.

So now Hanoi is eligible for new loans. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank will finance $500 million in loans to Vietnam for a variety of infrastructure projects. Among these are projects in telecommunications, port rehabilitation, electricity generation, road construction and agricultural development. American firms would have been shut out of the lucrative contracts if the Clinton Administration had not taken its recent actions.

The President is following the Bush Administration's road map for normalization of Washington-Hanoi relations. That strategy was tied to the successful implementation of the Cambodian peace accord and was conditional on Vietnam's unstinting cooperation in resolving the long-festering MIA issue. Cambodia has had its free election--but many MIA questions persist. Hanoi's full candor on this matter would help two old enemies put the past behind them and become new trading partners.

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