Resumption of full diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which President Clinton is expected to announce this afternoon, will fulfill the road map of reconciliation that the Bush administration drew with that country's regime in 1991.
The carefully orchestrated normalization began with the opening of a U.S. office in Hanoi that year, to seek information on servicemen missing in action from the Vietnam war. President Bush eased the embargo to permit humanitarian sales. Before leaving office, he allowed U.S. companies to open offices in Vietnam and do feasibility studies.
President Clinton in 1993 allowed Vietnam to come to terms with the International Monetary Fund and permitted U.S. firms to bid on work there financed by international institutions. Last year, he lifted the embargo. This year, Vietnam and the U.S. opened diplomatic liaison offices in each other's capitals. Upgrading these to embassies and sending ambassadors would be no change in policy but the logical next step.
Vietnam had to show good faith on a number of fronts throughout this process. The first requirement was that it pull its troops out of Cambodia, grant self-determination and cooperate in the establishment of a democratically chosen government there. It did. Of more concern to most Americans is assistance in learning all that can be learned of American missing in action. Cooperation in this dates to 1988. Most American officials who have taken part in it attest to Hanoi's good faith.
What Vietnam wants is legitimacy among nations and U.S. private investment in its transition to a free market. The U.S. interest is in pursuing every last possibility about MIAs and a level playing field for U.S. firms competing with East Asian and European rivals.
Sen. John J. McCain, R-Ariz., a former prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam, has praised its cooperation on MIAs. "I think it's very important for us to recognize that the war is over," he said. He understands -- better than his colleagues coincidentally running for president -- that recognition is bipartisan, a Clinton follow-up to a Bush initiative.
This step comes at a bad time in U.S. relations with China, and is wrongly advocated for its annoyance value. In fact, full recognition is a natural progression dictated by U.S.-Vietnamese relations. China welcomed this rapprochement at the start, and acts paranoid for domestic reasons.
Recognition does not end distrust. Hanoi is a Communist dictatorship, lacking free speech and deficient in human rights. It has yet to create a legal framework for the foreign investment it hTC covets. The U.S. has much to discuss with Vietnam on these subjects, as well as immigration, Cambodia and drug interdiction. The best way to discuss these is through ambassadors -- 20 years after Saigon fell and Vietnam plunged into the despair of Communist victory.