Now that the rival factions in Cambodia are moving toward a peace settlement, Vietnam's ambassador to the United Nations says the United States should begin to normalize relations with his country.
"We are prepared to have relations as soon as possible--tomorrow, the day after tomorrow," Trinh Xuan Lang said in an interview at Vietnam's mission to the United Nations. ". . . We are not begging. If the United States is not ready, we are prepared to wait. But I think we should not miss this chance."
A senior Bush Administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said this week's progress toward peace in Cambodia "increases the possibility" the United States will normalize ties with Vietnam. But he indicated the Administration is not ready to take such a step until there is further progress toward an end to Cambodia's civil war.
Since the Vietnam War ended 15 years ago, the United States has maintained a policy of isolating the government in Hanoi. The United States maintains a trade embargo against Vietnam and has no diplomatic relations with its government.
Last year, after Vietnam withdrew most of its troops from Cambodia, the Bush Administration said it would be prepared to move toward normal ties with Vietnam, but only after the Hanoi government helped to bring about a peace settlement in Cambodia. The current government in Phnom Penh was installed when Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia at the end of 1978.
On Monday, at a meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, the four warring parties in Cambodia took a historic step toward such a peace settlement when they agreed to share power in a Supreme National Council that would run the country until the United Nations can arrange a cease-fire and conduct free elections. The Cambodian government, headed by Premier Hun Sen, said for the first time that it is willing to go along with this power-sharing arrangement.
Lang asserted in the interview on Monday that Vietnam has been "doing its best" to bring about a peace settlement as soon as possible. "We have spared no effort in that direction," he said. As a result, he said, Vietnam has met the conditions set by the United States for normal diplomatic relations.
"Whether the United States keeps its word in normalizing relations or not, that is the decision of the United States," he said. "Conditions are put after conditions. . . . We believe there should be normalization of relations between the two countries sooner, sooner. Of course, it doesn't depend on one side. It depends on both sides."
A senior U.S. official said it is not yet clear how important a role Vietnam played in persuading Hun Sen and his Cambodian government to go along with the United Nations plan for a sharing of power.
"We don't know what Vietnam told Hun Sen and what the Soviets told him," the official said. "But Jakarta was a significant advance forward, and Vietnam didn't obstruct the process. The Vietnamese were certainly not a negative factor, and they may have been a positive factor."
Normalization of relations with Vietnam "is not center stage on the U.S. agenda right now," the official said. However, he added, "we would move step by step with them toward normalization as they help make this (the proposed Cambodian peace settlement) work."
Many analysts believe Vietnam is eager to forge new ties with the United States because of its need for Western investment to shore up its impoverished economy and because of its fear of losing aid from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
However, Lang argued that normalizing U.S.-Vietnamese relations would be "in the interest of both countries, politically and economically."
"The U.S. objective in Southeast Asia is peace, stability and security of the whole area. We also have the same objective," Lang said. "Secondly, in the economic field, I believe the United States could have quite considerable interests in Vietnam--for example, in the oil and gas industry and many other fields."
Last month, the Bush Administration opened direct talks with Vietnam but said these talks must be confined exclusively to the subject of Cambodia. Lang, who has been at the United Nations for two years, is representing Vietnam in those talks. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kenneth M. Quinn represents the United States.
Lang, who has met with Quinn twice so far, said he hopes these talks "may be considered the beginning of the process of normalization. But it depends on the United States."
A senior U.S. official countered that normalization of ties between the two countries "will be a function of how the Vietnamese are helpful" on Cambodia. For example, he said, "Vietnam still has thousands of advisers in Cambodia. As part of the peace process, they will have to leave the country."