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Seizing the moment in Indochina

IN the 13 years since our painful departure from Indochina, US-Vietnamese relations have been in a state of frozen enmity. With a new leader in Hanoi, the time has come for the United States to think seriously about its policy toward Vietnam. Many of the wounds of the Vietnam war have healed in this country. But mistrust for the Vietnamese will persist in the minds of the American people until we have achieved the fullest possible accounting of our servicemen still listed as missing in action in Southeast Asia. Although some recent progress has been made, more needs to be done to allay widespread cynicism regarding Hanoi's handling of this issue. Until Vietnam is more forthcoming, negotiations on other issues will be difficult.

Another important cause of friction between Washington and Hanoi is Vietnam's decade-old invasion and military occupation of neighboring Cambodia. In response the US has supported an economic and diplomatic boycott, led by the noncommunist states that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to pressure the Vietnamese into withdrawing their forces. ASEAN has also encouraged a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese and Hanoi-sponsored regime in Cambodia waged by a coalition of ethnic Cambodian resistance fighters. ASEAN has not supported, but has had to tolerate, the presence in the resistance coalition of forces of the former genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot in the resistance coalition.

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There is persuasive evidence that the combination of economic, diplomatic, and military pressure abetted by economic mismanagement has compelled the Vietnamese to rethink their position. The Vietnamese economy is in shambles and continues to spawn a tragic and desperate exodus of boat people - in stark contrast with much of the rest of Southeast Asia, which enjoys the most rapid economic development in the third world.

A new leadership in Hanoi has finally assigned the highest priority to economic restructuring. From all evidence, that leadership sees a normalization of relations with the US as key to unlocking a desperately needed flow of foreign aid, investment, and credits - not just from the US but from Europe, Japan, and international lending institutions.

The Soviet Union has given diplomatic, military, and some economic assistance to Vietnam in return for use of the former US military bases at Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay. Recently, there are strong indications that Moscow wants Vietnam to solve the Cambodian problem because the occupation has become a significant barrier to improved Soviet relations with both the US and China. Peking has made Vietnamese withdrawal a condition for a relaxation of its tense relations with both Moscow and Hanoi. In response to these pressures, Hanoi has announced that 50,000 of the 125,000 Vietnamese soldiers in Cambodia will be withdrawn by the end of this year and the rest by 1990.

The time is ripe for the US to pull together these various concerns into a comprehensive policy initiative. But what specifically should be done?

After discussions with our ASEAN friends, the US should offer to establish full diplomatic relations with Vietnam and facilitate the flow of foreign private and public capital into Vietnam.

In return, Vietnam must:

Remove its Army from Cambodia, as promised, by 1990. Hanoi must actively assist in replacing the current Vietnamese-installed regime with a genuinely neutral government.

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Commit to a timetable for the removal of the Soviet bases on their territory. The USSR could continue to supply Vietnam with economic and military assistance, but not station its forces on the mainland of Southeast Asia.

Return all known remains of American soldiers killed in Vietnam and provide any possible assistance in locating additional remains.

The third issue is the place to start. In discussions with Vietnam's foreign minister, Nguyen Co Thach, I have proposed that Vietnam allow the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to visit all suspected sites where additional remains may be located and where some believe American POWs may still be alive.

If Vietnam accepts the ICRC, the US should agree that the two countries will establish interest sections in their respective capitals to facilitate resolution of technical and humanitarian issues.

What do the various interested parties have to gain from this proposal?

Vietnam would secure an opportunity to salvage its economy and end its international isolation, while guaranteeing the establishment of neutral, non-threatening regimes in Cambodia and Laos.

The removal of Soviet bases would enhance Vietnam's independence.

The US, besides ending the long MIA nightmare, would achieve its two major objectives: rollback of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and termination of Soviet military bases in Indochina.

China would achieve the same two objectives as the US does.

For the the Soviets, ending the Vietnamese occupation would remove a major obstacle to improved relations with China and ASEAN - both vital if the Soviet economy is to be resuscitated.

Probably the most difficult problem will be how to prevent a return to power of the bloodthirsty Khmer Rouge. Ironically, this largest barrier to US-Vietnamese normalization is an issue on which Washington and Hanoi agree, along with ASEAN and the USSR.

No problem as complex and longstanding as the conflict over Indochina will be easily resolved. But for the first time in many years, the conditions for a resolution are present. If we are statesmen, we will seize the moment.

Sen. Frank H. Murkowski is a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on Veterans Affairs.

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