Trading with an old enemy


THE TRADE agreement signed yesterday will truly end this country's war with Vietnam, a quarter-century after the fall of Saigon and five years after restoration of diplomatic relations with the Communist regime in Hanoi.

It is also a victory for market economics in the cold war against communism. The deal is about open markets in Vietnam and legal protection of foreign capital and intellectual property there, as much as about selling Vietnamese goods here.

The agreement hatched with U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshevsky reflects a victory in Vietnam's domestic politics for economic reformers over Communist mossbacks, who scuttled such an accord a year ago.

This sea change did not come about unassisted. Pending congressional passage of permanent normal trading relations with China convinced Vietnam's national Communists that they cannot afford to do without the same relationship.

In other words, fear of Communist China is propelling Vietnam to substantially dilute its own communism, particularly protection of inefficient state enterprises.

President Clinton's announcement yesterday may allow him to cap his presidency with a visit to Vietnam, which he covets. And while the agreement is subject to annual review under the Jackson-Vanik amendment, as China's had been until this year, it highlights the anachronism of that Cold War legislation, aimed at a Soviet empire that no longer exists.

If Vietnam, why not Cuba? Increasing trade with Hanoi will add pressure for the same with Havana. If a hot war can end in truce followed by peace and then normal commerce, surely a cold war can.

Only isolation from the United States preserves communism in Cuba. The U.S. national interest that compels trade with Vietnam is stronger with respect to Cuba, though that task will be left to the next president.

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