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Vietnam: struggling to win the peace

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A local joke has it that a directive came down from the Soviet Union some time ago urging the Vietnamese to tighten their belts.

The answer from Vietnam went back: ''Send us belts!''

The joke has now been modified: ''Send us belts - and pants!''

Vietnam depends heavily on the Soviet Union. From the Soviets, the Vietnamese get not only their arms and ammunition but also much of their oil and food. According to American estimates, Vietnam costs the Soviet Union more than

But for the Soviets, the gains obtained from Vietnam are considerable. They now have major influence in a part of the world - Southeast Asia - where their presence was once minimal. Their use of air and naval facilities in Vietnam is of strategic importance.

Over the past several years, Vietnamese government officials have indicated that they do not like being as dependent as they are on the Soviets. They have also indicated that they would like to have diplomatic ties with the United States. This might help to reduce at least slightly their dependence on the Soviets and open the door to more Western trade and technology. The Vietnamese clearly view American technology as superior to that which they obtain from the Soviet-bloc nations.

But a series of obstacles stood in the way. At first, it was a Vietnamese demand for war reparations, a demand the Vietnamese later dropped. The exodus of refugees and Hanoi's ever-closer relations with Moscow were cited by Washington as additional problems. The establishment of US-China relations complicated matters. The current obstacle is the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea (Cambodia).

Visiting Ho Chi Minh City on a transit visa, on the way to Cambodia, this reporter was unable to obtain from Vietnamese officials their current views on the subject of relations with the United States.

But from what little I saw and heard, I got the impression that the Vietnamese are not willing to go far toward a compromise on Kampuchea, a country they consider of vital importance.

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