The Clinton Administration considered having Secretary of State Warren Christopher make a groundbreaking visit to Vietnam while traveling through Asia this month but decided that the time still was not right, Christopher disclosed Wednesday.
Although leaders of other countries, such as Japan and France, have visited Vietnam, no top-level American official has been to Hanoi since before the Vietnam War. The Administration partially lifted the longstanding trade embargo against Vietnam in February but balked at having Christopher stop in Hanoi for what would be a major new step in relations between the two countries.
"I've concluded that the situation isn't quite ready for me to stop in Vietnam. I think for a secretary of state to go there . . . I think we have to see some more progress on the MIA and POW issue," said Christopher, referring to the search for Americans missing in action during the Vietnam War. "The time will come, but it's not here yet."
The secretary also said relations with China have not improved enough for President Clinton to travel there, despite China's persistent lobbying for a presidential visit. "I think the relationship will have to develop in a more positive way before the President is prepared to go," he said. "I hope it will develop in that manner."
Vietnam remains a politically sensitive subject for the Administration, both because of the MIA issue and because of Clinton's successful effort to avoid military service during the Vietnam War.
Christopher made his remarks in a breakfast session at The Times' Washington Bureau, during which he also made these points:
* The Administration hopes to talk about "preservation of democracy" with Latin American leaders at a "Summit of the Americas" in Miami next month. "I hope what we did in Haiti would be a lesson to coup plotters that they cannot lightly overthrow a duly elected president," he said.
* One of the Administration's top priorities in foreign policy next year will be to work on new ways of bringing together Western and Eastern Europe. "One of President Clinton's dreams is to have an integrated Europe with no dividing lines," Christopher said. "Nothing like the Warsaw Pact line, nothing like the Berlin Wall in the future."
Christopher strongly denied a report, published in Wednesday's New York Times, that Arab governments are refusing to back the Administration's proposal for a Middle East development bank.
He said the American plan has been to have Arab governments agree in principle to the idea of such a bank, and then have experts iron out the details. "It's fairly clear to me that the bank will evolve after negotiations over the next six months," Christopher said.
Christopher is preparing to leave Monday on an 11-day trip to Asia that will take him to South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Over the last few weeks, State Department officials had quietly considered whether to have him stop in Vietnam as well.
In a speech last week, Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, disclosed that the United States and Vietnam are now very close to settling outstanding financial claims against each another--a step that will clear the way for the two governments to open diplomatic liaison offices in Washington and Hanoi.
During his Asia trip, Christopher said, he plans to raise human rights issues "as I always do in the capitals where that's appropriate. Certainly that will include Indonesia."
In recent years, American labor organizations repeatedly have criticized Indonesia for its restrictions on workers' rights. In addition, human rights groups have complained about the Indonesian government's recent decision to close down three weekly news publications.