Key Problems

  • The U.S. is normalizing relationships with Indochina.
  • While geography and history inextricably link Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, their current relationships with the U.S. are quite distinct.
  • Throughout Indochina, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have furthered normalization.

For many of the generation who came of age in 1965-75, the defining moral and political issue was the U.S. war in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—jointly known as Indochina since the French colonial era. More than two decades after that war ended, the U.S. is normalizing diplomatic and economic relationships with these nations. Yet the unquiet legacy of foreign intervention still casts a long shadow over U.S. policy in Indochina.

When the U.S. withdrew from the region in April 1975, its military had been defeated but it remained a global power. In contrast, the revolutionary nationalists of Indochina were victorious but their countries lay devastated. In Vietnam and Laos, those who allied themselves with the U.S. were distrusted, and many were detained for long periods of re-education. More than one million—mostly Vietnamese—became refugees.

In Cambodia, political dynamics turned horrific. Rampages by the Khmer Rouge forces, led by Pol Pot, turned the countryside into notorious killing fields in 1975-78 in an attempt to purify the nation of foreign influence and class differences. Khmer Rouge incursions into southern Vietnam and the close alliance of the Khmer Rouge with China led to the Vietnamese liberation/occupation of Cambodia. With strong U.S. diplomatic and financial backing, a Khmer Rouge/anticommunist coalition fought a ten-year war against the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh. In 1979 Vietnam also had to fend off a military incursion by China from the north.

Today, the U.S. and the three countries of Indochina are attempting to put aside the past and looking toward a better future. Although geography and history inextricably link Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, their current relationships with the U.S. are quite distinct.

For Vietnam and the U.S., convergent economic and strategic interests have slowly led to normalization. The U.S. could not afford to be left out commercially of the second-largest country in Southeast Asia, the world’s fastest growing economic region. Following Vietnam’s military withdrawal from Cambodia in 1988, European and Asian nations began to strengthen trade and investment ties with Vietnam. This process accelerated dramatically in the early 1990s after the Cambodian peace agreement and as economic liberalization began. Vietnam, like Laos and Cambodia, sees good economic and diplomatic links with the U.S. as essential. Isolation from the U.S. would make them more vulnerable to the ambitions of Japan, Taiwan, China, and such regional neighbors as Thailand.

For Cambodia, the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement and the UN-administered election in 1993 facilitated normalization with the United States. Despite past tensions between the U.S. and members of the coalition government, relations with the U.S. are positive, mainly because of the U.S. commitment to the peace process. The rising tensions among the coalition partners dismay some observers, and the limits on the political rights of coalition opponents is also a concern. Others are more optimistic, however, and see a basically democratic system likely to prevail, despite the country’s essentially one-party history.

Laos, a mountainous, landlocked country with a small population, is ever concerned about being swallowed up economically and culturally by neighboring Thailand, now an economic powerhouse. Laos finds its independence best served by maximizing but carefully controlling outside ties. U.S. relations and investments are important to maintain a balance, although the history of heavy U.S. bombing and political intervention during the Vietnam War impede close ties.

Throughout Indochina nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have furthered the normalization process. NGOs have provided humanitarian and development assistance to Indochina in addition to supplying a psychological lifeline during the years when U.S. policy was a mixture of punishment and isolation. For these reasons, the NGO community has enjoyed a special trust in Indochina. Recently, however, tensions have arisen as host governments have judged some NGO initiatives—notably human rights and environmental protection—to be intervention in domestic affairs.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • Laos and Vietnam still have not been granted normalized trading status, namely most-favored-nation (MFN) status, with the U.S.
  • In proceeding with the normalization process with Vietnam, Clinton faces a hostile lobby of POW-MIA true believers, hardline hawks, and embittered exiles.
  • The devastating human and environmental impact of the war on Indochina has received only token attention.

On the whole, the Clinton administration’s policies in Indochina deserve support. They represent an important reversal of earlier policies that isolated Indochina from the international diplomatic and economic community. In his first term, Clinton took steps toward better relations with Vietnam that President Bush had considered but declined to take because of the anti-Vietnam lobby in the Republican Party. In rapid succession, Clinton dropped U.S. objections to loans to Vietnam from the World Bank, lifted the trade embargo, exchanged liaison offices, and established diplomatic relations. The remaining major step on the diplomatic front with Vietnam is to install an ambassador, which is expected to happen at the beginning of the new Congress.

Special war-era legislative restrictions prohibit the usual range of economic-aid programs to Laos and Vietnam, although such restrictions no longer apply to Cambodia after the peace agreement. In Vietnam and Laos, the U.S provides only modest indirect funding through NGOs. The U.S. Information Agency (USIA), however, operates in all three countries, where it sponsors visits to the U.S. by mid-level leaders, Fulbright students, and business interns. The Peace Corps has negotiated an agreement with Cambodia, although no volunteers have yet been assigned because of Khmer Rouge threats, and the agency is interested in sending volunteers to Laos.

Important steps in economic normalization must still be taken, including the approval of the most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status for Laos and Vietnam—which is enjoyed by all but a handful of the world’s nations. If a country does not have MFN status, it is at a severe disadvantage in producing for the U.S. market. Potential political repercussions prevented Clinton from granting MFN status to Vietnam prior to the November 1996 elections. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation now guarantees investments in Cambodia and Laos, but none of the countries of Indochina have been approved for loans through the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Changing U.S. relations with Indochina occur within the context of larger geopolitical concerns in the Asia rim. In the 1990s, Hanoi and Washington share suspicion of China’s growing economic and military power. The U.S. regarded favorably Vietnam’s entry into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an alliance that has been central to U.S. strategic and economic interests in the region. Laos and Cambodia are also preparing to join ASEAN.

In proceeding with the normalization process with Vietnam, Clinton faces a hostile lobby of POW-MIA true believers, hardline hawks, and embittered exiles. This lobby uses any excuse to block or retard U.S.-Vietnam normalization—from phantasmagorical claims of living U.S. prisoners and alleged Hanoi schemes to bribe the U.S. Commerce Secretary to more legitimate although exaggerated problems of human rights abuses. As a result, all forward movement on normalization must be justified within the prism of accounting for American missing-in-action military personnel (MIAs).

Regarding Cambodia, the U.S. has played a positive role by providing political and economic support to the coalition government. Instead of solely backing the royalist and republican forces aided in the 1980s during the civil war, U.S. officials have established good relations with former adversaries in the Cambodian Peoples Party led by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.

With respect to the Khmer Rouge, since the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991, the U.S. has taken a reasonable stance. U.S. government funding launched the Cambodia Genocide Project at Yale University to document Pol Pot’s crimes. Although the U.S. shared in the distaste of many Cambodians at the partial amnesty granted to Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary, it judiciously recognized the benefits of separating him from Pol Pot and other hardliners who persist in waging guerrilla war against the coalition government.

Within Indochina, continuing suspicion about U.S. policy objectives is expressed most dramatically in editorials in official Vietnamese newspapers about the dangers of what they describe as “peaceful evolution” plots orchestrated by Washington. The existence of counterrevolutionary cabals led by exiles increases these suspicions, but such groups have little influence in the U.S. or in their homelands. In the cold war context, the U.S. was an ally in Cambodia of the anticommunist military factions (and, in effect, of the Khmer Rouge) and may have supported a contra-like rebel force against Laos and Vietnam during the Reagan era. However, there are no signs that the Clinton administration seeks to overturn any of the three governments.

Fully normalized relations between the U.S. and Indochina are fundamental to improved economic conditions in the region and for a stable peace. Yet as the normalization process advances, the human legacy of the war in Indochina should not be forgotten. For domestic political reasons, the U.S. has made resolution of its concerns about POW-MIAs the principal condition for normalization.

In contrast, the devastating human and environmental impact of the U.S. war on Indochina has received only token attention. Ignored as part of the normalization process is U.S. responsibility for such ongoing problems as the medical and environmental impact of the defoliant Agent Orange and the threat of unexploded land mines and ordnance.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • The Clinton administration and Congress should end U.S. trade and aid policies that discriminate against Indochina.
  • The POW/MIA issue should be de-emphasized.
  • The U.S. should take appropriate steps to increase exchange and volunteer programs with Indochina.

The Clinton administration has already taken many of the right steps to improve U.S. relations with Indochina. But more needs to be done:

De-emphasize the POW-MIA Issue

It is time to bring closure to most of the MIA listings and focus publicly on the small number of discrepancy cases that merit further investigation. Cooperation should continue on Joint Task Force searches for remains, but diplomats stationed in the region can assume the task of investigating stories of live sightings of U.S. POWs. At the same time the U.S. should provide greater assistance to Vietnam in locating its MIA remains.

Normalize Economic Relations

The Clinton administration and Congress should end U.S. policies that discriminate against Indochina. The priority is the granting of MFN trading status to Laos and Vietnam, while any remaining legislative restrictions on U.S. trade, investment, and aid to the region should be removed. The three countries should have the same options as others in Southeast Asia to balance national interests with the problems and benefits of increased integration in the global marketplace.

Information and Exchange Programs, Scientific Cooperation

The U.S. should take appropriate steps to increase exchange and volunteer programs, such as the Peace Corps, with Indochina. Policymakers should make ample resources available for academic and cultural exchange programs, particularly for urgently needed graduate and professional training. Initiatives should be undertaken to support joint scientific research on the effects of Agent Orange on the environment and on health in Vietnam. Relations with Vietnam would be advanced if the U.S. opened a consulate in Ho Chi Minh City and permited the establishment of a Vietnamese consulate in California, the home of many Vietnamese refugees. To advance the process of mutual understanding, the U.S. should support increased reciprocal visits between the U.S. and the region by political leaders, including those at the provincial and state levels.

Human Rights and Refugees

The human rights policy of the U.S. must be sensitive to its own history of human rights violations in the region. The U.S. government should not pursue a human rights policy in Indochina that includes rhetoric and implementation measures that are selective and inconsistent with the standards applied to other countries in Southeast Asia. The U.S. should recognize its special and continuing responsibility toward Vietnamese refugees. If refugees remain in Hong Kong in mid-1997, the U.S. should grant immigrant status to those refugees who refuse to be repatriated to Vietnam, regardless of the substance of their claims of political persecution.

Territorial Conflicts and Respect for Sovereign Borders

The U.S. should use its influence to discourage China’s unreasonable claims to disputed islands off Vietnam’s coast and to foster a commitment to peaceful resolution of territorial disputes.

The U.S. should continue to urge Thailand to close its borders to timber and gem-trading with the Khmer Rouge and to end tactical support given to the hardline remnants of Pol Pot’s forces. Laotian guerrilla groups should also be denied sanctuary in, or supply lines from, Thailand.

A measure that would build trust with Indochina would be an explicit public prohibition of any and all forms of U.S. covert or overt assistance to exile groups seeking to destabilize the governments in their countries of origin. In a similar spirit, the U.S. government should eliminate funding for Radio Free Asia and other media that are interventionist and openly hostile to standing governments. The foreign-language broadcasts by Voice of America already provide an alternative source of news.

Finally, U.S. leaders should keep in mind that adopting these and other policies will not automatically heal old wounds. Achieving real trust and confidence between our peoples will probably take at least a generation.

Written by John McAuliff, Director of the U.S. Indochina Reconciliation Project.

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