With the State Department's announcement this year of a new "road map" for eventual normalization of relations with the communist government in Hanoi, the Bush administration appears to be inching slowly, if reluctantly, toward the formulation of a new U.S. policy toward Vietnam. The new approach attempts to look forward rather than back. More than 16 years after the fall of Saigon, such change is long overdue.

Since the end of the war in Indochina, U.S. policy toward Vietnam has been guided mainly by hostility and lingering resentment. The United States has had no diplomatic relations with Vietnam despite the fact that the communist government would appear to have met any suggested criteria for qualifying as the de facto rulers of a legitimate nation-state. Instead the United States lists Vietnam as one of a handful of "enemy" countries, along with Cuba and North Korea, that are barred from receiving American aid, investments, exports or credit.

The Bush administration also has followed the lead of its predecessors in blocking Vietnam's attempts to receive international assistance from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, although for most economists Hanoi's monetary reforms appear to meet IMF preconditions to receive lending.

The stated reason for this continued policy of hostility is Cambodia; on Christmas Day, 1978, Vietnam invaded its small neighbor, toppled the murderous regime of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and installed in its place a more pliant communist regime of pro-Vietnamese Cambodian defectors. The rationale for the American policy was strategic-that is, just weeks before the invasion, all senior Vietnamese leaders traveled to Moscow to sign a 15-year treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, giving the Kremlin a new foothold in the Southeast Asian mainland and turning Vietnam, in the prevailing view of the time, into a new Soviet "satellite" that threatened regional stability.

The Bush administration now appears to be moving to close the chapter on the Vietnam War by striking out with a more imaginative policy that takes into account the lessening of East-West tensions while recognizing Indochina's continuing importance to American interests in Southeast Asia. But the underlying premise of the administration's current plan shows less American farsightedness than initial press reports suggested. The so-called road map toward normalization would still hold U.S. relations with Vietnam hostage to a solution in Cambodia. And even with the June agreement for a Cambodian ceasefire and the pledge by the four warring factions to stop receiving foreign military aid, it still appears unlikely that the remaining obstacles to a full-fledged peace can be resolved anytime soon.

A policy that continues to link America's relations with Vietnam to an outcome in Cambodia ignores the fact that Washington has its own interests in forming new ties with Hanoi. The global and regional realities that shaped and guided earlier Indochina policy have shifted. With the end of the Cold War and Vietnam's near-desperate efforts to make an "opening to the West" to revive its moribund economy, the principal objective has been met. The Vietnamese are no longer the menacing "Cubans of Asia," as former Secretary of State Alexander Haig once deemed them.1 The once-strong Soviet-Vietnamese partnership is already severed, as Moscow has served notice that it will drastically reduce aid to its former client. A strategic vacuum exists that America can now move to fill.


The current U.S. Indochina policy has its roots in the latter half of the Carter administration, when the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia left the White House embroiled in its own brand of bureaucratic warfare.

One side of the policy divide was argued by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser who, mindful of the larger East-West rivalry, sought to enlist China as a strategic partner in an alliance against Moscow.2 Opposing this perspective was Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, who believed that for too long U.S. foreign policy had failed to understand "the explosive forces of change in the developing world."3

Vance became interested early in establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam, but his hopes were dashed when the Vietnamese obstinately insisted in 1977 that the United States pay billions of dollars in war "reparations." By 1978, the Vietnamese had dropped that aid demand as a precondition for normalization, belatedly recognizing that the mood in the United States had changed and that Americans who had taken to the streets to protest the war were less interested in helping Vietnam rebuild. Hanoi's realization came too late; Washington was already losing interest. The Vietnamese were informed that the "window" for normalization would open only after the November vote that year.4

Hanoi was clearly impatient. Tired of waiting for the U.S. administration and anxious to press ahead with its Cambodian invasion according to its own secret timetable, Hanoi sent most of the Vietnamese politburo to Moscow on November 3, 1978, to sign a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. The ongoing U.S.-Vietnamese talks on normalization were formally ended when Hanoi sent tanks and troops into Cambodia, culmination of a long-brewing border war between Vietnam and Cambodia that began soon after the communist victories in 1975.

Most of the complex background to that conflict was lost in the initial, startled reaction to Vietnam's invasion, which the West and the noncommunist governments in the region viewed as proof of Hanoi's "aggressive" intentions in the region. Flush from its victory over the American forces, Vietnam was seen as a "rogue elephant" about to go stampeding across Southeast Asia, encompassing not only Cambodia but also Thailand and the Malaysian peninsula.

The Carter administration was left with the question of how to respond. The Chinese had already begun a massive military resupply of the defeated Khmer Rouge forces, who were starting to regroup in the mountains of western Cambodia. And a senior colonel in Thailand's military intelligence unit had traveled to Paris to convince an aging former Cambodian prime minister, Son Sann, to launch an active noncommunist "third force" resistance movement with Thai help. Son Sann dispatched a former Cambodian brigade commander from the Lon Nol arm, General Dien Del, to the Thai-Cambodian border with instructions to try forming an anti-Vietnamese guerrilla army out of the dozen small anticommunist guerrilla bands then scattered along the frontier.5

One option was for Washington to embark on a major campaign to arm and support the noncommunists, who were already asking for enough matériel to field a force of a hundred thousand fighters. But the mood in Washington at the time was against any major U.S. recommitment to Indochina, particularly of a military nature. "It was only a few years after the Vietnam War had terminated," Vance recalled later in an interview. "Some thought it would be a mistake to get involved again. I thought it would be a mistake."6

In addition the noncommunists were viewed skeptically as relics of the past. Both Son Sann and the other leading resistance figure, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, were considered too unpredictable to warrant serious support. Son Sann's army was composed mostly of fighters from the discredited Lon Nol regime, while Sihanouk, then still aligned with the Khmer Rouge, was given to anti-American outbursts and had at best a questionable commitment to democracy.

The defeat in Vietnam also had seriously impaired American intelligence-gathering capabilities. Reconnaissance planes in the region had been relocated, and the United States had virtually no assets on the ground. "All methods of surveillance had diminished," one former White House staffer said. "The birds weren't in place."7

When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, the new secretary of state, Alexander Haig, like Brzezinski before him, saw the Soviet Union as the ultimate source of most problems in the Third World, and he repeatedly linked Cambodia, Afghanistan, Angola and Central America as pointing to a grand pattern of "Soviet aggressiveness" around the globe.8

In the years since Hanoi had signed its friendship treaty with Moscow, the Soviets-as their quid pro quo-began building up their air and naval forces at Cam Ranh Bay, near Danang. Soviet MiG-23 jets gave Moscow a new striking capability in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, while access to the base for refueling and repair allowed them to reach the Indian Ocean in half the time it took from Vladivostok.

China viewed the Soviet buildup in Asia with growing alarm and also began deriding the Vietnamese as the "Cubans of Asia." On his first foray into the region in the summer of 1981, Secretary Haig echoed Chinese fears. "U.S. and Chinese perceptions of the international situation have never been closer," Haig said in Beijing.9

In fact Beijing's and Washington's objectives in Indochina were extremely far apart. The Chinese in 1981 wanted to keep the Khmer Rouge as a viable fighting force to pressure the Vietnamese to negotiate with Pol Pot. China had already opened a steady supply line to the Khmer Rouge, using Chinese freighters to send arms to Thailand's Sattahip naval base on the Gulf of Siam. Beijing had rebuilt Pol Pot's fighting strength from 20,000 guerrillas just after the Vietnamese invasion to 40,000 two years later. The Khmer Rouge had also been able to rebuild its civil administrative structure, using food and medical relief assistance to restore its decimated reception and distribution systems in camps along the border and in other parts of Cambodia under its control.10

Washington's stated policy at the time was never to allow the Khmer Rouge to return to power, and preferably for it not to have any say in a future Cambodian government. Behind the scenes, the Reagan administration increased Washington's commitment to the noncommunists, supplying up to $5 million a year in nonlethal aid to the guerrillas. Arms for the noncommunists came from China, and also from Singapore, whose prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, was one of the most staunchly anticommunist leaders in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In comparison with its support for the insurgencies in Nicaragua and Afghanistan, White House backing for the Cambodian noncommunists was surprisingly modest. This reflected both timidity at getting too deeply involved in a potentially controversial entanglement in a dangerous region as well as fear that an overly independent course might antagonize China, which initially was suspicious of the administration because of Reagan's early support for Taiwan. This policy would later become a source of anger for the noncommunists, who would complain that Washington never gave them the massive backing needed to turn their fledgling forces into an effective anti-Vietnamese resistance.

The Reagan administration thus chose not to strike out on its own with a Cambodia policy independent of Beijing's. A separate policy might have allowed Washington to play the role of broker between Hanoi and Beijing. Instead the United States was cast in the unlikely role of China's handmaiden in Southeast Asia, pursuing Deng Xiaoping's "Pol Pot strategy."


While the Cambodian conflict continued as a military and political stalemate for most of the last decade, and while U.S. policy remained relatively consistent, the later years of the 1980s saw several fundamental shifts by key actors that would ultimately begin to untangle the Southeast Asian quagmire and pose new challenges for Washington.

The most dramatic shift came in the Soviet Union when Mikhail Gorbachev became the Communist Party general secretary and began his program of economic and political restructuring. In foreign policy Gorbachev showed a new willingness to scrap the Brezhnev Doctrine and to enter into negotiations to settle nettlesome regional conflicts. In July 1986, at Vladivostok, Gorbachev announced his willingness to restore relations with China and to negotiate to ease the sources of tension in Asia, thus opening the way for talks on Cambodia.

In response to Gorbachev's overtures, Deng listed three "conditions" for improvement of Sino-Soviet relations: removal of Soviet forces from Mongolia and settlements of the long-running conflicts in Afghanistan and Cambodia. By late 1988, when the Chinese foreign minister made his historic first visit to Moscow, the Chinese apparently relaxed the latter two obstacles, adopting the position that those two conflicts need not be entirely settled, but only that serious efforts be engaged to resolve them.

China-watchers at the time marked a gradual evolution in Beijing's position on Cambodia and in the Chinese leadership's staunch support of the Khmer Rouge. Whereas past official statements seemed essentially apologetic about the Khmer Rouge and its history of atrocities, by the end of the 1980s Beijing recognized that Sihanouk should lead an interim coalition government and that none of the competing factions should dominate it. The Chinese in this context also committed themselves to cutting off aid to the Khmer Rouge as part of any settlement, although Beijing's sincerity in that pledge has yet to be tested.

Vietnam, too, appeared to make a dramatic shift in its thinking on Cambodia, in this case after the December 1986 Communist Party congress. At that session Vietnam's three most senior politburo figures stepped aside, allowing for the evolution of a reform-minded leadership under the newly named secretary general, Nguyen Van Linh. That congress put Vietnam on the path to economic reform, recognizing that the mismanagement of the past was in large measure responsible for the country's desperate economic plight, and pledging to adopt new measures designed to encourage private business activity and to attract foreign investment.

Political reforms in Vietnam have been more tenuous. This reflects the regime's dilemma in trying, on the one hand, to liberalize political life while, on the other, remaining unwilling to tolerate any opposition to the Communist Party's monopolistic hold on power. This contradiction was repeated at the most recent June 1991 congress, where the new party secretary general, Do Muoi, called reform "an irreversible process" even while reaffirming that socialism "is the only correct path."

As part of the regime's campaign of glasnost-called "doi moi," or renovation-political debate has been loosened considerably and the press has become more tenacious in exposing cases of official corruption. But in the area of multiparty pluralism and democratization, the regime has remained firm: "democracy" would be centralized and the party would maintain its monopoly on power. Hanoi viewed the collapse of the communist regimes in eastern Europe in 1989 as a major crisis and instituted a period of conservative retrenchment that continues today. Thus even with the most recent leadership changes that have brought a younger, more technocratically skilled leadership to the forefront, the party is still likely to continue downplaying political reform while continuing to liberalize the economy.

On Cambodia, however, the reform window brought a new diplomatic flexibility. From a long-held position of calling the situation inside Cambodia "irreversible" and refusing to negotiate, the longtime Vietnamese foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, shifted to a more accommodating view in his public statements to the Western press. By 1989 Vietnam was announcing that it would withdraw all of its combat troops from Cambodia by the end of the year; Hanoi even moved up the timetable, staging the "final" troop withdrawal that September. The fact that the withdrawal was not immediately met with some reciprocal recognition by the West-either full normalization with the United States or at least a relaxation of the economic embargo-is believed to have severely undercut Thach's position inside the politburo and led to his resignation at the June congress. The new leadership, however, has pledged to continue to try to improve relations with the United States as well as China.

Inside Cambodia the latter half of the 1980s saw more subtle, but equally important, changes. Specifically, the Vietnamese-installed regime of the People's Republic of Kampuchea appeared to begin shedding its image as a Vietnamese "puppet." As Vietnamese advisers began withdrawing, Cambodians increasingly began to take on the responsibilities of governance. And in the person of the young prime minister, Hun Sen, the Cambodian government appeared to be trying to take a more independent, nationalistic line. Journalists who traveled in Cambodia saw a revival of free-wheeling capitalism and a new measure of liberalization, particularly concerning religion, as pagodas reopened and monks reappeared on the streets.

The most significant regional shift of the late 1980s came in Thailand, the "front line" state that had adopted the most hard-line policy against Vietnam's Cambodian adventure and that had basically guided ASEAN's response since the inception of the conflict. After parliamentary elections in the summer of 1988, the incumbent prime minister, General Prem Tinsulanond, stunned Bangkok political analysts by announcing that he would not accept another invitation to form a new government.

Prem's successor was another retired general and diplomat, Chatichai Choonhavan, who immediately began articulating a new, more flexible approach to Indochina. His stated goal was to turn Indochina "from a battlefield to a marketplace." The rationale for the new approach seemed clear: after a decade of record growth Thailand was looking for new markets and new sources of raw materials to continue to fuel its boom. Chatichai and his coterie of young, Western-educated advisers envisioned a new regional alignment in Southeast Asia, with Bangkok serving as the hub of a potentially prosperous new growth sphere that would include not only the three Indochinese states but also Burma.

Under Chatichai's government, Bangkok gradually began to expand its business relationships into Indochina, even while continuing to allow the Khmer Rouge and its two allied noncommunist Cambodian resistance groups to use sanctuary bases on Thai soil. Since the Thai foreign ministry and elements of the powerful military establishment did not agree with Chatichai's policy shifts, Thailand appeared to be following a two-track Indochina policy, supporting the Cambodian resistance while launching new diplomatic initiatives to Phnom Penh.

The most dramatic-and controversial-of Chatichai's new initiatives was his invitation to Hun Sen to visit Bangkok in early 1989. The Cambodian prime minister, long derided by his opponents as a Vietnamese "puppet" and a "quisling," was suddenly treated with all the pomp due a visiting head of government, including dinner on the Oriental Queen yacht. The February 1991 military coup in Thailand ended Chatichai's elected government and signaled a possible shift to a more hard-line position toward both Vietnam and Cambodia.

The other major development was the opening in Indonesia in July 1988 of the first direct peace talks on the Cambodian conflict. The four warring Cambodian factions-the Hun Sen government, the Khmer Rouge and the two noncommunist groups led by Sihanouk and Son Sann-all took part in the talks. Agreeing to participate marked a major concession for the resistance, which previously had insisted that any negotiations would have to be with Vietnam as the occupying power, and not with Hanoi's "puppets" in Phnom Penh.

The three days of talks, held at an ornate palace in the town of Bogor just outside Jakarta, ended in discord, with Khmer Rouge delegate Khieu Samphan blocking attempts to forge a final, joint communique. The Bogor talks nonetheless served at least three useful purposes: they established a formal negotiating framework for all the parties; they sharpened the broad outlines of a possible settlement based on the idea of a four-party power-sharing arrangement backed by an international presence; and they linked, for the first time, the issue of Vietnam's withdrawal with "the prevention of the recurrence of genocidal policies and practices of the Pol Pot regime."


When George Bush took his oath of office on a cold January day in 1989, the transition at first seemed to presage new American thinking on Indochina. In his inaugural address Bush noted that there were Americans missing and unaccounted for in the world and, seemingly extending an olive branch to the nations responsible for their fate, he declared that goodwill begets goodwill.

The central focus of those remarks was the Middle East, where Shiite Muslim extremists still hold seven Americans captive. But Indochina-watchers also read into those remarks a similar reference to Vietnam, as Bush seemed to be holding out the possibility of a new relationship if Hanoi would settle the lingering issue of servicemen missing from the Vietnam War.

On the same day Bush took his oath, Richard Childress, Reagan's outgoing National Security Council staff assistant for Asian affairs, delivered to Congress a long-awaited technical report on the MIA issue. Among other things, it attempted to lay to rest the belief that Americans might still be alive in Indochina. The issue nevertheless retains its emotional and political resonance in the United States and could still be an obstacle.

In the preceding years the Reagan administration had taken steps to defuse the POW/MIA issue. Reagan's appointment of retired General John Vessey as Washington's chief negotiator on the matter, and the agreement to allow for private humanitarian assistance to Vietnam in prosthetics and disability projects, appeared to point to a new period of cooperation on the issue. The number of joint searches of wartime crash sites increased.

In the months after that hopeful beginning, however, the Bush administration's Indochina policy came to be marked more by confusion and misdirection. Specifically on Cambodia-the major obstacle to a new relationship with Hanoi-the administration had inherited a decade-old policy that was becoming increasingly untenable as more and more members of Congress began questioning the wisdom of a position that allied the United States, however indirectly, with the reviled Khmer Rouge.

In the spring of 1989, when Secretary of State James Baker told a congressional committee that the Khmer Rouge was "a fact of life" and had to be included in any Cambodia settlement, he unleashed a torrent of criticism on the Hill. He was only restating what had been the longstanding U.S. position, but it was the first signal that the mood in Washington was shifting and that a new policy was indeed necessary.

Several factors contributed to the changed attitudes in Washington on the Cambodia issue. Vietnam in May 1988 announced plans to withdraw 50,000 of its occupation troops from Cambodia by year's end, with the remainder to be withdrawn before the end of 1989. That new timetable, dictated by Hanoi, hastened efforts to find a negotiated settlement while raising the fear that the Khmer Rouge would step in to fill the void in the event of a unilateral Vietnamese pullout. Increasingly frequent news reports warned that the Khmer Rouge was gaining ground and that cooperation was increasing between the noncommunists and Pol Pot's forces. By 1989 more and more members of Congress and their staffers were making trips into Cambodia. Most came away with the assessment that the Hun Sen government generally appeared in control of the country and had made great strides in rebuilding Cambodia from the devastation left by the Khmer Rouge.11

For most of the year the administration appeared to be grappling for a new policy on Indochina. First came the idea, spearheaded by Vice President Quayle, that Washington provide "lethal aid" to the noncommunist resistance to bolster their hand in negotiations with the two larger communist factions. That ill-fated venture was soon shelved after running into stiff congressional opposition and warnings from some ASEAN countries, particularly Indonesia, that it would only further inflame the situation.12 But the "lethal aid" debate served to galvanize members of Congress over the issue and move Cambodia closer to the forefront of the legislative consciousness. Newspapers also began editorializing against the U.S. position in Indochina and suggesting it was time for the administration to begin talking to Hun Sen.

Support for the administration's Indochina policy further eroded following the failure of an international peace conference in Paris in August 1989. It was widely expected that Sihanouk-whom U.S. officials described as "our horse" in the four-sided power struggle-would use the Paris conference to break from his Khmer Rouge allies and find some kind of accommodation with Hun Sen. Instead Sihanouk came across in the Paris talks looking fickle, unpredictable and unable to part company with the mass murderers who had executed several of his own children. Administration "spin doctors" immediately went to work after the collapse of the conference, trying to blame Vietnamese and Cambodian intransigence for the breakdown of the talks. But the damage to Sihanouk's reputation was done.

Vietnam's September 1989 troop withdrawal once again turned the focus on the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, who immediately launched offensive operations around Pailin and in several other provinces close to the capital. The Hun Sen government initially seemed unlikely to last more than a few months. The Vietnamese-trained Cambodian army was well equipped but suffered from serious problems of poor communications, sagging morale and a lack of coordination among the various provincial armies battling the guerrillas. A much-vaunted village militia system seemed to collapse in the face of the guerrilla offensive and the government seemed wedded to a losing policy of trying to hold onto every inch of territory by scattering its forces-and thus making them more vulnerable to ambushes-even as the guerrillas began operating in larger and larger units.13

By the summer of 1990 the revolt against the administration's Cambodia policy appeared to be spiraling out of the administration's control, particularly after several key senators-notably Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), Alan Cranston (D-Cal.) and Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine)-became interested. Much of the new interest was staff-generated, from a small, informal Indochina working group. Its members worked for senators on key committees-appropriations, intelligence and foreign relations-and in the majority leader's office. The staffers managed to convince their Senate bosses that the administration, then enjoying foreign policy success because of the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, was vulnerable in Cambodia. The initial Bush proposal for lethal aid provided a convenient peg for the debate, because the Senate was wary of covert programs following the Iran-contra revelations and the bruising battles over aid to the Nicaraguan contras. Also, because the area involved was Indochina, it found an echo in earlier concerns over the past U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Several senators began referring to the possibility of the administration getting on the same "slippery slope" of involvement in a regional quagmire.

In July, with a bipartisan group of more than 60 senators signing a letter to Bush criticizing the administration's Cambodia policy, Baker hastily announced that Washington would be withdrawing its recognition of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea because of the inclusion of the Khmer Rouge. The decade-old policy was only just beginning to unravel.


Efforts to resolve the Cambodian conflict have centered on the so-called United Nations plan, the brainchild of Congressman Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) and Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. The plan essentially calls for the United Nations to step in and run key government ministries in Cambodia during a "transition" period leading to democratic elections with all the Cambodian factions participating.

The U.N. plan is a noble attempt to break through the central obstacle that has stymied the search for a settlement in the past-the resistance groups' insistence that the Hun Sen government be effectively dismantled and replaced by an interim administration comprised of all the Cambodian factions until elections can be organized. Since Hun Sen has repeatedly rejected proposals to allow the Khmer Rouge any role in a future government before elections, the U.N. plan has been seen as a face-saving compromise that both sides could accept.

The resistance demand for an interim government of all four factions is based on the premise that elections organized by Hun Sen cannot be free and fair, particularly if he controls the key ministries of defense, finance and interior. But the demand now seems like an odd power play, given the recent trend in eastern Europe and Nicaragua, where existing socialist governments were able to organize free elections under international supervision without first being forced to invite the opposition to join an "interim" government. Even in Burma the existing government was rejected at the ballot box, although the regime subsequently refused to hand over power. In almost all the recent transitions, the opposition won the balloting, which suggests that under the proper international safeguards, Hun Sen would also be unlikely to succeed in any wholesale electoral fraud or vote-rigging. The resistance demand for an interim government thus seems a backdoor attempt to grab a slice of power before elections are held.

The U.N. plan carries several flaws, not least of which is the enormous cost of such a massive undertaking. Some estimates are as high as $20 billion for a lengthy transition period. When pressed on the question of how the plan will be financed, proponents glibly suggest that Japan would be willing to foot the cost, although Tokyo has not openly agreed to that scenario. And, cost aside, there is a serious question whether the world body would find a sufficient number of Khmer speakers qualified to administer the country during the transition.

Hanoi and Phnom Penh have generally objected to the provision of the plan that calls for all sides to lay down their arms and be counted. The fear in Phnom Penh is that while government troops will be easy to count, because the government controls the cities, the Khmer Rouge would almost certainly hide away a significant number of its forces and arms caches in the jungles, to be able to resume their fight at a later date.

Proponents of the U.N. plan see the eventual all-party elections as the surest way to prevent a return to power by the Khmer Rouge. According to this rather optimistic scenario, the Khmer Rouge, because of its past record of brutality, will certainly lose any free elections and China would then use the result as its face-saving excuse for cutting off the arms flow to its Khmer Rouge allies. But it would seem like fantasy to believe that after more than a dozen years of guerrilla warfare, the Khmer Rouge leaders would be willing to abide by the results of an election and simply disappear. More likely, the Khmer Rouge would try either to disrupt the elections before they take place or to raise enough official complaints during the cease-fire period to taint the results later.

The essential flaws in the U.N. plan are that it rests on the sincerity of the Cambodian factions and assumes a willingness to realize a negotiated settlement of their conflict. Nothing could be further from reality. The Khmer Rouge is uninterested in elections it knows it cannot win, and it appears to be counting on an outright military victory, with or without continued Chinese backing. Hun Sen, too, seems uninterested in elections as long as his forces can hold onto the major population centers and his government can continue chipping away at the global economic blockade through new commercial contacts with the West. He is already having some success with new business links to France, Australia and, supposedly, even hard-line anticommunist Singapore.

The new U.S. proposals to Vietnam outlined by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon-tying economic aid and eventual recognition to a Cambodia settlement-appear to rest on the old assumption about Vietnam's residual influence over its client in Phnom Penh. Just as the Chinese are supposed to deliver the Khmer Rouge at the conference table, the assumption is that Hanoi will be able to deliver Hun Sen. But even if Vietnam did create the People's Republic of Kampuchea regime out of whole cloth, that "puppet" state now appears to have found an independent voice. The P.R.K. is unlikely to take any position it sees as against its own survival interest, regardless of what Hanoi says.

Vietnam's support is crucial to the success of any peace plan. But Vietnam's consistent public position, at least since the first Bogor peace talks, has been that it will support any plan acceptable to its client in Phnom Penh. Given Hanoi's desire to get rid of the Cambodian problem and move on with efforts to rebuild its economy with international help, the most unlikely scenario of all is that Phnom Penh would agree to a peace settlement that Vietnam rejects.

The notion of linking U.S.-Vietnamese relations to the signing of a Cambodian accord this summer, and then timing full diplomatic relations to come only after the establishment of an elected government in Phnom Penh, seems to ignore the reality of the stalemate in Cambodia and the deep-seated animosities of the four Cambodian factions. Even if an accord is signed-and the four sides took a significant step in that direction with their latest truce accord reached in Pattaya-the Cambodian problem is likely never to be fully resolved. If America wants to pursue its interests in normalizing ties with Hanoi, it should begin to decouple the two issues.


The case for beginning a new bilateral relationship with the Socialist Republic of Vietnam begins first with a recognition that America has definite interests in the region that would best be served by a more normal relationship with communist Indochina.

Some analysts argue that Indochina has become peripheral to the United States and that ASEAN long ago supplanted Vietnam and Cambodia as the regional center. Indeed, the statistics taken alone sound convincing enough: ASEAN has two-thirds of the land of Southeast Asia and three-quarters of the population. More important, the ASEAN states together hold 95 percent of the region's wealth, measured in GNP. As economic development replaced military might as the measure of success in the 1980s, Indochina indeed became a back-burner area.

For most Americans, Vietnam remains not a place, but an era. For an entire generation of Americans that era is one of the most emotional, debated and analyzed in American history. Yet the principal concern is in exorcising the emotions of the past, not in building a coherent policy for the future.

This is particularly true of a core group of current policy-makers in Washington, many of whom were involved in fighting the Vietnam War during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Most of the current administration's "Asia hands" are actually "China hands"-including the president himself-who apparently have come to believe that U.S. policy in Southeast Asia meant a choice between supporting Beijing or backing Hanoi. Many of the China hands continue to harbor romantic notions about the Middle Kingdom despite the bloody crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators in June 1989. For those China hands working in the State Department and the White House in the early 1970s, the highlight of their careers was the opening of diplomatic relations with Beijing; the low point was the humiliation of American helicopters lifting off from the roof of the embassy in Saigon.

Not surprisingly some of the China hands who oppose normalized relations with Vietnam-arguing that the best policy was to squeeze concessions through the embargo-are the very same policymakers who, immediately after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, were warning that it would be dangerous to try to isolate China.

More recently, joining the debate over "most favored nation" trade privileges for Beijing, President Bush declared, "Our policy relies on an obvious fact-to influence China one cannot simply isolate China and I do not want to be the president who isolates China. I want to be the president to facilitate change for human rights in China." If Vietnam were substituted for China, President Bush's argument would still seem to hold true: the best approach for influencing internal reform is not isolation, but involvement. But whereas China enjoys an almost idealized status in American policy, Vietnam is still considered an enemy country. Far from deserving the same considerations of recognition and trade as China, Vietnam is seen as deserving punishment and retribution for handing America its first military defeat.

Despite the lingering emotions over Vietnam, however, the United States retains important strategic, economic and humanitarian interests in Indochina, not least of which is reducing the principal remaining source of regional tension in Southeast Asia.

There is now a geopolitical vacuum in Indochina. With the Soviet Union drawing down its forces from Cam Ranh Bay and drastically curtailing its open-ended economic aid, new possibilities exist for the West to reestablish influence in Vietnam. The United States is also facing the eventual phasing down of its own forces from bases in the Philippines-because of rising nationalist demands in Manila, budget constraints at home and, most recently, the volcanic activity of Mount Pinatubo. Washington thus has an interest in trying to identify and nullify possible regional flashpoints. To the extent that countries in the region see Vietnam as a threatening force that might take advantage of a U.S. withdrawal, Washington might ease that perception by integrating Vietnam into a stable and prosperous Southeast Asia. Ending the regime's isolation and giving it a stake in the region's continued growth would seem to be the best guarantor against future aggressive tendencies.

On the economic side, American businesses-led by the American chamber of commerce in Hong Kong-have been arguing that the current policy of embargo and isolation has left U.S. firms at a competitive disadvantage as Vietnam attempts to woo foreign investment with one of the most liberal foreign investment laws in the region. The problems of investment are legion, from lack of a system of contract law to bureaucratic red tape and corruption. But now American businesses are forced to sit on the sidelines while British, Indian and European firms divide potentially lucrative contracts for oil exploration, while Japan establishes itself as the major noncommunist trading partner and while the Australians complete a new telecommunications system that has already improved telephone and facsimile services to and from the once largely isolated country.

A raft of humanitarian issues could also best be addressed in the context of normalized relations between Washington and Hanoi. Indeed, Washington this year opened an office in Hanoi to deal with the issue of the two thousand-plus American servicemen still missing from the Vietnam War, a move that tacitly acknowledges that such outstanding bilateral issues can best be resolved through more official high-level, in-country contacts.

The major humanitarian issue facing the region remains the problem of Indochinese "boat people" who continue to flee their homeland seeking asylum in the West. From a decade-long policy of granting automatic "first asylum" to Vietnamese refugees, the ASEAN countries have grown weary of what they now consider an undue burden on their resources. The refugee issue, and particularly the question of whether the "boat people" should be forcibly returned to Vietnam, has become the most nettlesome problem souring Washington's relations with ASEAN.

Most of the major relief organizations dealing with the refugee problem are convinced that the ultimate solution lies in economic assistance to Vietnam to attack the problem at its source. Reducing Vietnam's dire poverty would remove, for many, the incentive to flee.

For those who want to see greater political pluralism in Vietnam, the question is one of approach: Is it better to strangle the regime through sanctions or to use economic and cultural relations to establish contacts with progressive forces for change?

A U.S. decision to normalize relations with Hanoi would have an immediate impact throughout the region. On balance, the move would help lessen regional tensions and improve America's leadership profile in Asia.

One of the early, strong arguments against normalization advanced within the Carter administration was that it would imperil America's then-emergent ties with China. But today many prominent China scholars dispute the notion that Washington must choose between Hanoi and Beijing since, among other reasons, most countries in the region have diplomatic relations with both. Moreover China itself has kept a diplomatic staff at its sprawling embassy in Hanoi even during the period of open hostility.

Given the current low state of Sino-American relations-brought on by the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the continuing repression in China, America's growing trade deficit with the Chinese and complaints over Chinese missile sales-the leadership in Beijing would likely interpret any American move to recognize Vietnam as a direct affront. It could increase Beijing's paranoia about hostile encirclement and prompt it to disrupt the ongoing Cambodian negotiations. But China and Vietnam have lately shown signs of easing their own bilateral relationships, increasing border trade and allowing more official and unofficial contacts. If Washington lets potential Chinese dissatisfaction delay a move that is on balance positive and in America's interest, it will be allowing U.S. foreign policy to become hostage to the wishes of Beijing.

Reaction from ASEAN would likely be mixed, reflecting the schisms within the organization over the member-states' own relations with Hanoi. Hard-line Singapore, despite its own private trading links with Hanoi, would likely see it as yet another example of Washington's unreliability and preoccupation with popular opinion. Malaysia, which has taken a key role in providing training for the Cambodian noncommunist resistance, would be similarly displeased. But Thailand and Indonesia-arguably the most important ASEAN states in terms of setting Indochina policy-would likely welcome a move toward normalization, as would the Philippines. All three countries have lately been improving their own bilateral diplomatic, trade and commercial ties with Hanoi. Those have included new air links, joint ventures in restaurants and hotels, and an exchange of high-level visits. Thailand's deposed prime minister, Chatichai, had urged the United States in 1989 to become active again in investing in Indochina and "to use Thailand as a springboard, a bridge" to the former adversary.14

Japan, likewise, would welcome any U.S. move toward normalization, if it included a lifting of the economic embargo. Japan is already one of Vietnam's largest trading partners, and Japanese businesses have set up small representative offices in Ho Chi Minh City. By some estimates Japan now accounts for about 12 percent of foreign investment in Vietnam. But because of the embargo and the importance Japan puts on its bilateral relationship with the United States, the Japanese have refrained from making major investments in Vietnam or issuing long-term credits to the Vietnamese.

The strongest argument against normalization is that the embargo is the only "stick" Washington now has to force Hanoi's support for a Cambodian peace plan. Washington, it is said, might disrupt the delicate peace talks by unilaterally removing it. Proponents of the peace plan argue that recognition in advance of a peace agreement would only convince Vietnam's hard-liners to dig in their heels further and refuse any concessions. But this view ignores the fact that America has its own bilateral interests in normalizing relations with Vietnam, interests that go beyond the Cambodian problem. Continued linkage of normalization to events in Cambodia-particularly after Vietnam has withdrawn its troops-keeps U.S. policy in the region hostage to the obstreperousness of the Cambodian factional leaders. The Pattaya agreements signed by the Cambodians in June seem to offer Washington the best opportunity so far to say that Vietnam has acted responsibly in the peace process and that the rest is now up to the Cambodians themselves.

Just days after U.S.-led ground troops liberated occupied Kuwait from the Iraqi army, President Bush declared, "The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian peninsula." If that is indeed the case, then normalization of relations with Vietnam now, more than 16 years after the fall of Saigon, is surely overdue. It would close out the final chapter of America's long and wrenching Indochina involvement, and truly allow Americans to put the Vietnam era behind them.

1 Haig Caveat, New York: Macmillan, 1983.

2 Brzezinski, Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser (1977-1981), New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983. Also, for a full account of the evolution of the China policy under the Carter administration, see Nayan Chanda, Brother Enemy: The War After the War, New York: Collier Books, 1986.

3 Vance, Hard Choices: Critical Years in American Foreign Policy, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983, p. 23. Also see Chanda, op. cit.

4 Author's interview with Richard Holbrooke, former assistant secretary of state for East Asia, February 1991.

5 This account of the formation of the KPNLF is based on the author's interview with General Dien Del, founder of the Khmer People's National Liberation Armed Forces, in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, in January 1991, and also based on interviews with KPNLF officials in Bangkok who asked not to be identified by name. The account of General Chovolit Yongchaiyudh's trip to Paris was confirmed by another retired Thai general who served on the National Security Council at the time.

6 Author's telephone interview with former Secretary Vance in March, 1991.

7 Author's interview with Michel Oksenberg, University of Michigan professor and former National Security Council staff member.

8 Haig, from the transcript of his June 14, 1981, banquet toast in Beijing, and June 16, 1981, news conference in Beijing, as reprinted in Department of State Bulletin, vol. 81, no. 2053, August 1981.

9 Ibid.

10 Steve Heder, "Democratic Kampuchea: The Regime's Post-Mortem," in Indochina Issues, January 1981.

11 The mood among congressional staffers was explained to the author by several staff members interviewed in Washington in the fall of 1990.

12 At a press conference in Jakarta following Quayle's trip, the author, then Southeast Asia Bureau Chief for The Washington Post, asked Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas about the administrations's request for lethal aid and the advice he gave Quayle. Alatas said Indonesia felt that arming the resistance was not the correct move at the time and he said he told the vice president so "in the Indonesian way."

13 The account of the problems plaguing the Cambodian military is based on my own interviews in the field in November 1989 just after the Vietnamese troop withdrawal. In January 1991 on a subsequent trip Khieu Kanarith, a Cambodian editor and party member, also confirmed that the government's initial problems in battling the resistance stemmed from its policy of scattering its forces.

14 From the author's interview with former Prime Minister Chatichai, November 10, 1989, in Bangkok.

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  • Keith Richburg is on leave from The Washington Post as journalist-in-residence at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.
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