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U.S.-Vietnam Relations and the Security of Southeast Asia

The Carter Administration's policy concerning the normalization of relations with Vietnam has grown increasingly enigmatic. In the early months of the new Administration, there seemed to be ample evidence of a firm commitment to the rapid normalization of relations. The dispatch of the Woodcock mission to Hanoi and, in May 1977, the initiation of discussions with the Vietnamese in Paris seemed to foreshadow the early establishment of ties with Hanoi. The United States dropped its opposition to Vietnam's entry into the United Nations and pledged to end its trade embargo once diplomatic relations had been established. The Vietnamese promised to intensify efforts to provide an accounting of Americans listed as missing-in-action (MIA) in the war, and Hanoi's negotiator went out of his way to say that Vietnam was asking the United States not for "war reparations" but for "contributions" to the reconstruction of the country. Broadcasts over Radio Hanoi indicated that the government was in fact preparing the populace for normalization of relations with the United States and for a stepped-up effort to gather information about the American MIA's. Both sides appeared to share the objective of an early normalization of relations.

But the mood of optimism was shattered within hours of the Paris meeting's conclusion when the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to bar the government from negotiating "reparations, aid or any other form of payment" to Vietnam. Subsequent votes in the House reaffirmed the existence of strong opposition to any form of aid and even to a lifting of the trade embargo. Positions of both the Vietnamese and U.S. governments hardened. The Vietnamese made it clear they would not budge from their view that U.S. "contributions to healing the wounds of war and to postwar reconstruction" were "an undeniable obligation," while the Carter Administration indicated that the aid requested by Hanoi was out of the question. The Paris negotiations, which resumed in June in a gloomy atmosphere, reached an impasse over the aid issue; another meeting, held in December, showed no apparent progress.

At present, it is hard to say what priority, if any, the Administration attaches to the normalization of relations with Vietnam. The limited public discussion of the issue in 1978 has tended to highlight the view that Washington should pay less, rather than more, attention to the normalization question. The case against normalization has been made most forcefully by Bernard K. Gordon. He believes the Vietnamese see nothing to be gained from cooperation with their neighbors, and he describes the view that close relations with Vietnam are crucial to stability and security in Southeast Asia as a "fixation" of the Japanese and, perhaps, a few Americans. It would, in Gordon's view, be prudent for the United States to make it clear that Vietnam, as a communist state, is "unpalatable" for American aid; refusing to deal with Hanoi would demonstrate Washington's intention to give priority in Southeast Asia to the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) group - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.1 The Administration has offered little public response to the critics of normalization; rather, it has, apparently as a matter of political expediency, seemed to retreat from its earlier enthusiasm for normalization without explaining what position Vietnam presently occupies in the U.S. vision of a secure and stable Southeast Asia.


There is a strong case to be made for normalizing relations with Vietnam and providing limited forms of assistance, but the Administration has not made it. This is undoubtedly an indication of its assessment that the political obstacles to such a policy are formidable. But it may also reflect a more general problem -namely, the U.S. failure to make clear the conceptual framework within which its Asian policies are cast. This deficiency has been glaringly apparent in connection with the Administration's major Asian initiative the decision to withdraw ground combat forces from Korea. That policy has been presented in a manner that has confused both our Asian allies and Congress; even some members of Congress who are basically sympathetic to the withdrawal decision assert that the long-term goals and assumptions underlying this policy have never been made clear.

The adjustment of U.S. Asian policies to fit the post-Vietnam strategic context has seemed unsure and piecemeal. Policies have been patched together in response to domestic political concerns, pressures from allies, and a new President's predispositions, but there has been no clear statement of the goals and instruments of a security policy attuned to the realities of a new era. On-again off-again negotiations with Vietnam, a confusing Korea policy, intermittent expression of concern about human rights in several Asian countries, a slowing of U.S. economic interest in Southeast Asia, bogged-down base negotiations with the Philippines, clashes with Japan over energy and trade, and a non-policy on China have all served to reinforce the impression that U.S. security policies in Asia lack any overall sense of direction. Given this context, it is hardly surprising that the Administration's Vietnam policy seems difficult to fathom.

It will be easier to understand the importance of relations with Vietnam for the security of Southeast Asia if we begin by recognizing several key elements of the post-Vietnam strategic context in Asia. A realistic adaptation to this new era requires a conception of security that goes beyond the previous preoccupation with military alliances and U.S. commitments. One of the principal features of the emerging Asian security system is a greater emphasis on economic and diplomatic relationships with potential adversary nations as instruments for helping to maintain security. The development of Sino-U.S. détente and the end of the Vietnam War have greatly increased the potential scope for such relationships. Indeed, it is not so difficult to imagine the emergence in Southeast Asia of what may be termed a "multi-alignment" system - a diversity of crosscutting relationships linking communist and non-communist nations on different issues.2 The main advantage of such a system is that conflict, when it arises, will be fragmented along numerous lines; the danger of the kind of polarization that can lead to hostilities is reduced.

This is not to suggest that economic and diplomatic relationships alone are likely to be decisive in preventing the outbreak of war; indeed, if such relationships are marked by conflict, they may provoke hostilities. Nor should emphasis on such relationships as potential instruments for maintaining security be taken to mean that military power has become unimportant. It is, however, reasonable to assume that if potential adversary nations have economic and diplomatic ties, they may well acquire a greater stake in maintaining peaceful relations. When going to war means jeopardizing a host of beneficial economic relations, the potential aggressor is more likely to calculate that the costs of war are too high. While some may think it unrealistic to view such relationships as a basis for security, the real danger is not that people will expect too much of these relationships but too little; an overemphasis on military capabilities as the basis of security may prevent any real effort to test the deterrent potential of other means.

Another important advantage of a multi-alignment system is that it would tend to lessen dependence on the United States without resulting in dependence on any other single power. It offers the non-communist nations of Asia a greater possibility of working out an accommodation of interests with their communist neighbors without merely moving out of one orbit and into another. And the process of diversifying alignments is itself likely to strengthen further the multipolarity of the system and to generate added opportunities for alternative relationships.

The cost of this diversification, which is already under way, is a diminished sense of solidarity among the former members of the American-guaranteed alliance system. Clearly, these countries will feel freer to manifest divergencies with the United States. But the lessened degree of dependence on U.S. power will be advantageous for the United States as well. Although the U.S. strategic deterrent and naval presence obviously retain important roles, multi-alignment will further reduce demands on U.S. military power, which is appropriate in an era of diminished U.S. capacity to project its military power in Asia. It could give Asian nations a greater political capacity to provide for their own security by placing them in a position to balance and even, on occasion, to manipulate their relationships with more powerful states. Of course, any move toward a multi-alignment system raises new uncertainties, and some are sure to view it as a threat to stability; but we need to have a more sophisticated understanding of the meaning of stability. In the long run, the soundest basis for stability will lie in the establishment of a security structure less dependent on U.S. military power. A stability that is self-perpetuating, rather than artificial, must come from within - through the establishment of a modus vivendi among the nations of the region. The proposed approach, which shifts priorities from the maintenance of alliance solidarity to the working out of an accommodation of interests between the ASEAN nations and their communist neighbors, may hold the best prospects for assuring the security of Southeast Asia.


The establishment of relations between the United States and Vietnam should not be viewed as one last battle in a war that some people continue to fight in their own minds; rather, it should be seen as an important first step toward the creation of a new Southeast Asian security system based on the concept of multi-alignment. There is, of course, no denying the existence of strong political opposition in this country to any form of assistance to Vietnam. But this only makes it all the more important that the Administration play a role of leadership in explaining to Congress and the American people why it is advantageous for the United States to develop relations with Vietnam.

Let us begin by recognizing that the Vietnamese have already done a good deal to lay the basis for the kind of cooperative relationships that could facilitate the development of a multi-alignment system. They have adopted a conciliatory posture toward their non-communist neighbors. Interviews with a cross-section of military and civilian leaders in all five ASEAN countries conducted during October-November 1977 indicate that Hanoi's efforts have eased regional anxieties about Vietnam's intentions. Approximately 65 interviews with senior foreign ministry officials, military leaders, politicians, journalists, businessmen, academic specialists, and foreign diplomats make it abundantly clear that Vietnam's neighbors do not, at present, feel threatened by Hanoi.

Earlier fears that the victorious Vietnamese would give a major boost to their communist compatriots elsewhere in Southeast Asia have not materialized. In Thailand, the country thought to be most endangered, U.S. and Thai officials report that there has been no increase in the level of Vietnamese support for the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) since the Vietnam War's end. Modest training and logistic support, including small arms channeled through Laos, have continued at roughly their previous level. Most Thai leaders attribute this reticence to expand support of the CPT to the preoccupation of the Vietnamese with the reconstruction and development of their own country, though some also note that Hanoi may view the CPT with a certain ambivalence, since the latter is closer to Peking than to Hanoi. In Malaysia, official American sources report that there is no evidence of any Vietnamese support for the communist insurgency. In fact, according to State Department and Pentagon sources, the Vietnamese have not only refused to supply captured U.S. weapons to guerrillas in Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines but have rejected purchase offers from such nations as Libya, Ethiopia, North Korea, Peru, Pakistan and Turkey. This restraint - and willingness to forego sorely needed foreign exchange - was attributed, at least in part, to Hanoi's desire to facilitate economic ties with non-communist nations and to avoid being labeled an "exporter of revolution."3

To be sure, some leaders in each of the five countries are concerned as to how long the Vietnamese will maintain their present restrained posture. Some Thais feel that Hanoi's reluctance to give more support to the CPT may be mainly a reflection of the fact that the insurgency's needs are quite limited at present. Indonesian leaders are resentful of Radio Hanoi's broadcasts supporting guerrillas in the former colony of Portuguese Timor who continue to oppose their territory's absorption into Indonesia.

But practically all of the leaders interviewed in the ASEAN countries agreed that, up to now, Vietnam's posture toward its non-communist neighbors has been remarkably conciliatory. It had been thought in 1975 that the new balance in Southeast Asia would consist of an ASEAN bloc confronting an Indochina bloc. In fact, the emerging balance has proven to be a much more fragmented one. The only confrontation has been within the Indochina "bloc" itself; indeed, given the intense hostility between Vietnam and Cambodia, one seldom hears mention of any Indochina bloc. Hanoi has established diplomatic relations with all of the ASEAN countries. The last of these was Thailand, with which harsh words were exchanged during 1977. Most observers would agree, however, that the delay in normalizing relations was mainly attributable to the extreme anti-communism of the Tanin government, which came to power after the October 6, 1976 coup in Bangkok; when the army leadership moved to replace Tanin a year later, tensions quickly dissipated and the normalization of relations with Vietnam was consummated.

Moreover, the ASEAN leaders are relieved to find that Vietnam has not become as dependent on the Soviets as once feared, and that the prospects for a Soviet naval base at Cam Ranh Bay appear dim. Indeed, the best evidence of Vietnamese independence from the Soviet Union is the significant improvement in Hanoi's relations with Peking during the last year.

To a much greater extent than could reasonably have been anticipated in 1975, the Vietnamese have sought to facilitate the development of economic relationships with non-communist states. It is not just a matter of being more concerned with reconstruction than expansion. Although there are uncertainties as to how far the Vietnamese are prepared to go, they have indicated that they intend to base their economic development on a strategy that accords an important role to aid and investment capital supplied by non-communist countries.

Hanoi does, to be sure, attach more importance to economic relations with the major powers than with other Southeast Asian states; so, for that matter, does each of the ASEAN nations. The Vietnamese undoubtedly realize that only industrial powers like the United States and Japan can make a major contribution to the fulfillment of their country's pressing economic needs and, at the same time, help to provide a meaningful counterweight to dependence on the major communist nations. But it is inaccurate to suggest, as Gordon does, that Vietnam gives "very low priority" to economic cooperation with the ASEAN states and remains disinclined "to move to a new era in relations with its neighbors."

One should not confuse Hanoi's wariness of ASEAN as an organization with a reluctance to deal with the ASEAN nations. The Vietnamese have declined to deal with ASEAN as an entity because they have not yet rid themselves of the suspicion that the group, formed with U.S. encouragement, has an underlying rationale of anti-communism and may develop into a de facto military alliance. The Vietnamese are gradually coming to learn that ASEAN is dedicated primarily to economic cooperation, but given the recurrent reports that various ASEAN leaders believe the organization should play some sort of military security role, Vietnamese suspicions need not be dismissed as entirely beyond comprehension. Of course, one might argue that Vietnamese participation would be the best way to prevent ASEAN's becoming an anti-communist alliance.

In any case, Hanoi's attitude toward ASEAN has gradually softened from sharp opposition to non-approval. A secret report containing the five ASEAN foreign ministers' assessment of Vietnam in mid-1977 indicated a consensus that Vietnam is not hostile to the ASEAN grouping. Vietnamese reporting of last August's ASEAN summit meeting showed some signs of sympathy for the group. In informal discussions with a delegation of visiting Filipinos, the Vietnamese even hinted at the possibility of future cooperation with ASEAN, but said they needed time to gain a better understanding of the organization. More recently, they have suggested the formation of a larger regional organization embracing Burma and the three Indochina states, as well as the current ASEAN members; such a diverse membership, they contend, is necessary to demonstrate that the organization is intended only for economic cooperation, not for any ideological purposes. As an indication of their readiness to participate in regional groupings that are manifestly concerned only with economic cooperation, the Vietnamese have agreed to join the Association of Natural Rubber Producing Countries.4

The best indication of the extent to which the Vietnamese have sought to cooperate with non-communist countries, including their ASEAN neighbors, is the extraordinary range of economic relationships they have undertaken to establish with them. Of course, the Soviet Union has been by far the largest source of aid, and important contributions have come from China (whose share is expected to increase this year) and the East European countries. But there have also been significant contributions from France, Sweden and Japan, with small amounts provided by Australia and a half dozen West European nations. Hanoi's eagerness for U.S. aid has an economic, as well as political, rationale. From 1975 to early 1978, Hanoi was said to have raised some $300 million in commercial loans - much of it in short-term trade credits - mainly from French, West German and Japanese banks. Loans have been solicited from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Vietnam has joined the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and in order to qualify for membership Hanoi had to make available financial data that the Soviets and Chinese, who have never joined the IMF, refused to provide. In taking Saigon's place in the ADB, Hanoi assumed all the "rights and obligations" of the former South Vietnamese government, which included meeting outstanding debt service payments covering the period since the demise of the Saigon government.

Perhaps the most surprising part of Vietnam's search for external assistance has been the country's strenuous effort, virtually unique for a socialist government, to attract private foreign investment. In April

1977 Hanoi promulgated a remarkably liberal foreign investment code aimed at encouraging investment in three areas: oil, export-oriented industries, and manufacturing for the domestic market. Under this code, foreign investors are permitted to hold up to 49 percent equity in joint ventures producing for domestic markets and can maintain exclusive ownership and management of enterprises producing for export; production-sharing arrangements are to be utilized in the oil sector. Although there has been some concern among foreign businessmen about the relatively high tax rates and the shortness of the non-nationalization guarantee (10-15 years), the code contains an article specifying that the Vietnamese government can, in specific cases, approve "more advantageous terms in favor of the foreign party." The Vietnamese have made it clear that the code, already liberalized a good deal in response to the comments of foreign businessmen on an earlier draft, has been presented more as a basis for negotiation than as a strict set of rules to which foreign investors are expected to adhere.5

The Vietnamese have indicated a special interest in attracting U.S. oil companies. Oil represents Vietnam's best hope for overcoming its trade deficit, and the Vietnamese have made it known that they would prefer to work with U.S. companies, rather than Soviet or European ones, because of the Americans' superior technology and prior experience in the area.6 Japanese participation in oil refining and petrochemical projects has been solicited, while Singaporean oil technology and equipment have been sought. Participation in Vietnam's oil development could bolster Singapore's ailing oil-support industries. The Vietnamese have voiced a desire to study the Indonesian experience in dealing with U.S. oil companies and also to send technicians to Indonesia to study fertilizer industry operations. Malaysia has agreed to send technicians to help with the development of Vietnam's rubber and oil palm industries.

Although 60 percent of Vietnam's trade is currently with the socialist countries, the Vietnamese say they attach considerable importance to increasing trade with their neighbors. In explaining Hanoi's refusal to join the Soviet-backed Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), the Vietnamese Foreign Trade Minister asserted that his country's interest lay in developing trade with its Asian neighbors. Japan has already become Vietnam's number-two trading partner, close behind the Soviet Union.

The leaders of the ASEAN states, for their part, see numerous possibilities for developing trade relations with Vietnam. A Philippines Chamber of Commerce mission that visited Vietnam last year found the Vietnamese eager to import sugar, spare parts for U.S.-made tractors and other agricultural machinery, and other items, while high-grade anthracite coal was the most promising potential Vietnamese export to the Philippines. In January 1978 Vietnam concluded an agreement with Thailand on trade and economic/technical cooperation. This agreement, similar to ones reached with other ASEAN countries, was described as "more an expression of good will than a sign of impending major commerce," primarily because of Vietnam's lack of foreign exchange. Indeed, in each of the ASEAN countries, officials described Hanoi's lack of foreign exchange as the biggest obstacle to the development of trade with Vietnam. As an Indonesian cabinet minister noted, only if the Vietnamese could manage to get loans from a third party would Indonesia be able to sell Vietnam the fertilizer it wished to purchase.


A question central to the future security of the ASEAN states is: what can be done to encourage the Vietnamese to hold to the conciliatory course upon which they are presently embarked? It is within this context that the question of normalization must be considered. The view that close relations with Vietnam are important for the security and stability of Southeast Asia is not, as Gordon has suggested, merely a "fixation" of the Japanese and a few individuals in Washington. Rather, it is the belief of a majority of leaders in the ASEAN countries, including many conservative military officers who one might expect would hold other views. For example, Thai leaders, including a broad cross-section of the army leadership, believe that Bangkok must now seek to achieve through the "traditional Thai" methods of negotiation and diplomacy the security it might earlier have pursued by relying on U.S. military power. In concrete terms, this means that the development of cordial relations with Vietnam and Cambodia stands at the top of the national agenda. Indeed, a failure to promote normalization of relations with Vietnam was one of General Kriangsak's major criticisms of his predecessor when he took power in Bangkok in October 1977. Although no one can guarantee positive results, there is a strong conviction in each of the ASEAN countries that the best hope of keeping Vietnam in a conciliatory mood is through the development of cooperative relations with Hanoi in a diversity of fields.

From the standpoint of the ASEAN leaders, it is important not only that they normalize their own relations with Vietnam - a process already well underway - but that the United States do so as well. The United States, they believe, can make an important contribution to the security of Southeast Asia if it carefully develops its political and economic relations with Vietnam and helps the ASEAN countries to do the same. There was unanimity among the Southeast Asians interviewed that it would be desirable for the United States to have normal diplomatic relations with Vietnam. There was also virtual unanimity on the desirability of Washington's providing economic assistance to Vietnam, subject to two conditions: (1) aid should not be so substantial that it makes the Vietnamese too strong, and (2) it should not come at the expense of aid to the ASEAN countries.

Those who contend that the ASEAN leaders oppose U.S. aid to Vietnam fail to discern the essential distinction relating to the magnitude of the aid to be provided. There has indeed been some concern in Southeast Asia that the two stipulated conditions might not be met - namely, that the United States would provide truly massive aid to Vietnam while ignoring the needs of the ASEAN countries. This concern has diminished considerably as the prospect of such massive aid has grown remote. Still, some Filipinos and Thais are bitter at the possibility that Vietnam may end up receiving more aid than countries that supported the United States in the war. Others, especially Indonesian army leaders, fear that the dynamic Vietnamese will be so successful in developing their economy that a decade hence other Southeast Asians may begin to ask whether they ought not to consider the Vietnamese model. Thai and Indonesian army generals observed that even if the Vietnamese receive no more aid than the ASEAN countries, they may well be able to use it more effectively because of the greater control they have over their society. Some senior officials, however, feel that if Vietnam appears to be making impressive progress, this should be viewed as a challenge that will spur the ASEAN countries to work harder themselves. Although the Japanese have drawn some criticism from the ASEAN countries for their leading role in developing economic relations with Hanoi, it is unclear what, if anything, this may imply about how the ASEAN leaders view the prospect of U.S.-Vietnamese economic relations. Criticism of the Japanese seems mainly to reflect a general distrust of them and, specifically, a fear that, in their pursuit of economic gain, they may favor Vietnam over the ASEAN countries.

But these concerns do not constitute opposition to Washington's providing any economic assistance whatever to Vietnam. A demonstration that the United States gives priority to ASEAN, rather than to Vietnam, does not require that Washington refrain from developing relations with Vietnam. On the contrary, the ASEAN leaders generally believe that modest U.S. aid to Vietnam would make an important contribution to their security by helping the Vietnamese become "respectable members" of Southeast Asian society and keeping their energies channeled into constructive paths. If, on the other hand, the Vietnamese were to become frustrated in their economic development efforts, they might become harder to deal with and turn to expansionism. Moreover, U.S. aid would reduce the possibility of any excessive Vietnamese dependence on the Soviets. It might even create a modest degree of dependence on the United States - for example, for spare parts - that could work to help preserve stability. Some feel that the United States ought to help build a stronger, more independent Vietnam in the hope that it might serve as a kind of buffer state that could help to maintain a regional balance of power and thwart any Soviet or Chinese thrust into Southeast Asia.

The central point is this: if the United States has an interest in the stability and security of Southeast Asia, then it has an interest in persuading Hanoi that its conciliatory policy of seeking cooperative relationships with non-communist states is viable. The normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam could well be important, if not decisive, in determining whether Hanoi deems its conciliatory policy a success. Ties with Hanoi would open the way not only for U.S. aid but for a lifting of the trade embargo and the entry of U.S. oil companies, which would be of the utmost importance to the Vietnamese. Normalization would also encourage other investors, from the United States and elsewhere, to work with the Vietnamese. And it would help legitimize Japanese efforts to develop their economic relations with Vietnam, which, from the standpoint of Southeast Asian security, we have every reason to do.

Up to now, the response to Hanoi's search for aid and investment from the non-communist world has been lukewarm. Although the Vietnamese have worked hard to develop a diversity of sources, the amount of aid pledged and the response from private investors have been far below the country's needs. Especially disappointing to the Vietnamese has been the reluctance of the non-communist countries to give commodity aid or loans for equipment, as opposed to commercial loans and deferred-payment arrangements.7

We should be aware, moreover, that there may well be a limit to the time available for a response from the United States. As Douglas Pike has noted, the doctrinal issue of "how far Vietnam should go in subordinating ideology to economics in its external relations" has yet to be definitively resolved.8 It is in the interest of the United States to act in a way that will strengthen the hand of Vietnamese moderates who seek to keep "economics in command." Recent reports from diplomatic sources in Hanoi indicate that the decision to adopt an open policy concerning economic relations with the West was taken over the objections of some senior leaders and a number of younger Moscow-trained cadres. There are indications that if the policy of openness proves a failure because of the absence of a response from the United States, there will be strong pressure to rely more heavily on the Soviet Union. There is already evidence that the Soviets look askance on Vietnam's open invitation to Western capital; they would prefer Vietnam's full integration into COMECON, rather than the intensification of its relations with non-communist states.9 It would be most unfortunate if U.S. unwillingness to deal with Hanoi were to push the Vietnamese into Moscow's embrace.


If the impasse over the aid issue is permitted to prevent a normalization of U.S. relations with Vietnam, the United States will have missed an important opportunity to contribute to the building of a new structure of stability and security in Southeast Asia. It is, of course, a fact that the Congress is presently opposed to giving aid to Vietnam because this might seem to imply an admission of U.S. guilt in the war. But congressional opinion is not unchangeable. It is worth noting that a public opinion poll organized by The New York Times and CBS in mid-1977 showed 66 percent of the American people in favor of giving food or medical assistance to Vietnam and 49 percent agreeing to assistance in industrial and farm equipment. One might wish that Hanoi would simplify the political task in this country by separating the normalization and aid issues, recognizing that the chances of subsequently arranging aid to Vietnam would be increased if diplomatic relations could be established without any gesture that could imply a U.S. admission of wrongdoing. But the Vietnamese, one may presume, lack confidence that such subsequent aid would be forthcoming; moreover, they claim that their own political realities - they must explain to their own people why the Americans are now being welcomed - require some indication that the United States wishes to help their country recover from the war's destruction.

One possible compromise might be for the United States to pledge aid when diplomatic relations are established but to assert (1) that this aid is given as a gesture of goodwill, not as the fulfillment of any obligation, and (2) that it does not constitute any admission of wrongdoing. If the Vietnamese want to tell their own people that this aid means the Americans are sorry for the destruction they caused during the war, does this really do any harm to U.S. interests?

The Vietnamese have made it clear that they are very flexible as to the forms in which U.S. aid might be given. It can, for example, be channeled through international agencies. It may well be that an appropriate first step for the United States in developing economic relations with Vietnam would be to help facilitate trade between Vietnam and the ASEAN countries by providing credits that could be used by Hanoi to purchase products from the other Southeast Asian nations. As already noted, Vietnam's lack of foreign exchange is a major barrier to the development of economic relations with the ASEAN states. These credits could be viewed as a form of assistance to the ASEAN countries as well, since they would expedite their exports. And such an approach would do a great deal to ease the minds of any in the ASEAN countries who fear that U.S. aid to Vietnam might come at their expense. This approach - in effect, channeling U.S. aid to Vietnam through the ASEAN countries - would greatly please the ASEAN leaders. Thai and Indonesian army generals, among others, described this as the "ideal" way for the United States to begin assisting the Vietnamese.

In the long run, the initial congressional reluctance to aid Vietnam may prove to have been useful. Because we have exercised caution in approaching Vietnam, it is more likely that the basis for the new relationship will be properly understood. Unseemly haste might have aroused fears on the part of the Vietnamese that the United States was seeking domination; it would certainly have aroused passions in the United States. Most important, it will be better in the long run for both sides if the relationship is perceived to be founded on mutual interests, rather than on the notion of reparations, as earlier demanded by the Vietnamese. A relationship seen as mutually beneficial is more likely to endure.

We should proceed, therefore, with the understanding that if we establish relations with Vietnam and provide modest economic assistance, we shall be doing this because it supports our interest in the maintenance of peace and stability in Southeast Asia. Relations with Vietnam ought to be viewed not merely as a bilateral matter but as an important step toward building a new regional system characterized by the diversity of relationships I have referred to as multi-alignment. Above all, we need to adopt a forward-looking approach. It will be most regrettable if the passions of the Vietnam War, which have already done so much damage to the fabric of American life, should now cause us to sacrifice a real opportunity to contribute to the creation of a new structure of security in Southeast Asia.


3 New York Times, May 1, 1977.

9 See Robert C. Horn, "Soviet-Vietnamese Relations and the Future of Southeast Asia," unpublished paper prepared for the annual meeting of the Western Slavic Association, 1978, p. 11 and also Far Eastern Economic Review, May 13, 1977, p. 42.

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