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Hanoi today joins alliance once aimed at stopping it


HANOI, Vietnam -- For the first time since French gunboats sailed up the Perfume River in 1883 and made this country into a colony, Vietnam is emerging from the shadow of foreign powers and becoming able to choose its own roles.

It will reach a milestone of sorts today when it becomes TC member of the organization that other Asian states originally formed to keep Vietnam at bay. Vietnamese say that their country's acceptance into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- known as ASEAN -- is proof of their country's diplomatic rehabilitation.

"It's the first time that Vietnam has had full and peaceful relations with our neighbors," said Do Van Ninh, a professor at Vietnam's Institute of History. "It shows we're becoming a normal nation engaged in our region, not one attached to distant foreign powers."

But Vietnam's new membership in ASEAN is also a recognition that the country's experiment with Soviet-style Communist development has failed. While Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand -- the members of ASEAN -- developed their economies, Vietnam remained isolated and poor.

"We cannot stand outside international organizations [and] see their members surging ahead," Vietnam's deputy Foreign Minister, Vu Khoan, wrote recently in a state-run newspaper. "We cannot let time pass in isolation."

Vietnam began changing course in the mid-1980s by starting a series of economic reforms. Farmers were allowed to lease land, factory managers were given the power to make decisions and private entrepreneurs could open new businesses. During the past three years, the result has been economic growth averaging 8 percent a year.

Although Vietnam remains run by a party that calls itself Communist, its ASEAN neighbors say they are more interested in the party's direction than its nominal ideology.

"We do not need to question their system of government so long as they accept a free-market system," Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad said earlier this week.

Vietnam, however, will still be the poor man of ASEAN. The organization has given Vietnam eight years to strengthen its industries before it must lower tariffs and expose those industries to more foreign competition.

Diplomats say ASEAN is embracing Vietnam to ensure the country's development continues, and thus to offset the military influence of China. Although ASEAN is not a military alliance, some members have begun sharing military information and begun trying to formulate joint positions on security issues.

The most pressing worry is China's intentions in the oil-rich South China Sea. China claims all of the Spratly Islands in a

U-shaped swath of ocean that includes oil and gas fields currently being exploited by Malaysia and Indonesia. The Philippines felt China's new muscle this year when a small reef off its coast was occupied by Chinese forces.

Vietnam is more than familiar with China's power. In 1974, when North and South Vietnam were locked in the final battles of the Vietnam War, China seized one group of the Spratly Islands. In 1988, China grabbed seven more islands, killing 72 Vietnamese sailors. In between, the two sides fought a border war.

Vietnam is hardly the military power it once was, but its 500,000-strong army repulsed the Chinese invasion in 1979 and remains one of the region's strongest. And with a population of 74 million, Vietnam will also be ASEAN's second-most populous nation, after Indonesia.

While improving its regional ties, Vietnam is also trying to restore past friendships. Russia's foreign minister arrived in Hanoi yesterday, the highest Russian official to visit Vietnam since the Soviet breakup.

The two countries want their relations put on a commercial footing: Vietnam wants Russia to pay for use of the Cam Ranh Bay port, while Russia wants Vietnam to repay war-related debts.

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