A New Battle Over Vietnam

Warren (Bud) Williams, who served in Vietnam as a Green Beret, feels little fondness for his former enemies. "I have no interest in helping these people," he says. Yet Williams does have an interest in making money--and right now he thinks Vietnam offers some attractive opportunities. Williams, who owns a public-relations firm in Hong Kong, believes it's time for Washington to rethink its 15year-old trade embargo against Vietnam, which prohibits any American citizen from doing business there. Recently, he says, he shared a flight with a Canadian oil executive whose company had just signed a fat contract with the Vietnamese. In negotiating the deal, the Vietnamese insisted that the Canadian firm take on an American partner if and when Washington lifts its sanctions. "We are just giving away business with that embargo," Williams says.

Fifteen years after the last authorized U.S. soldier left the country, Vietnam now seems eager for Americans to return--as businessmen. With unemployment in the cities hitting 30 percent and the economy a shambles, foreign investment is sorely needed to get the nation back on its feet. "There's a perception that if America comes back, things will be better," says Gage McAfee, a Hong Kong-based American lawyer who recently took a delegation of foreign--but not American--businessmen to Vietnam to meet with top officials. Some American companies are just as eager to gain access to Vietnam's many abundant natural resources--oil, tropical hardwoods, minerals, coal, coastal fisheries and agricultural lands--and its market of 70 million people. Yet so far, Washington shows no intention of dropping the embargo. "America holds the key," says a Western ambassador in Hanoi. "Until Washington gives the green light to its businessmen and to international lending agencies, Vietnam will remain stuck in poverty and underdevelopment."

The Bush administration bases its hard line on Vietnam's continued role in Cambodia. Although Hanoi claims to have withdrawn the last of its 250,000 troops from the country, Washington demands that Cambodia's Vietnamese-backed leader, Hun Sen, permit foreign observers to verify the military evacuation and oversee free elections. The Bush administration has also used its influence to keep the World Bank and International Monetary Fund from backing development projects in Vietnam. "We're prepared to begin the process of normalizing relations..." says a State Department spokesman, "if their withdrawal from Cambodia is verifiable, antiKhmer Rouge arrangements are completed and self-determination through free elections is assured."

While U.S. firms are kept on the sidelines, European and Asian companies are making deals left and right. With encouragement from Hanoi, which in 1988 adopted a liberal foreign-investment code that permits wholly owned foreign ventures, 105 foreign investment projects, worth about $800 million, have been approved. British and French companies have taken the lead, followed by firms from Belgium, Holland, Australia, India, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. The ventures range from shrimp farming to Telecom Australia's construction of a fiber-optic communications network linking Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. The greatest attraction is oil. In all, eight foreign oil companies have purchased exploration and production-sharing rights to fields in the South China Sea.

Informal relations: Hungry to get a piece of the action, some big U.S. companies and banks have begun quietly putting pressure on the administration to drop its ban on trade. A number of firms plan on spending $350,000 to hire a Washington lobbyist to push their case, according to Samuel Moon, the head of Hong Kong's American Chamber of Commerce Indochina Committee. Other companies said to be eager to do business in Vietnam include Mobil Oil, Citibank, American Express, Otis Elevator and AT&T. Opponents of the trade ban argue that it has been a failure, Vietnam can buy whatever it needs on the world market. Some businessmen say the hardline U.S. policy also risks weakening reform-minded members of the Hanoi leadership who are behind the opening to the West. The administration reponds to those arguments the same way it answers calls for aid to Gorbachev: let them act first, then we'll talk.

While they wait for a change in policy, American firms are busy positioning themselves for the day when they will be allowed back into Vietnam. Some are straining against the limits of the law, establishing informal relationships and exchanging letters of intent with Vietnamese officials--which is perfectly legal, as long as no formal contracts are signed. Other U.S. businessmen sell to buyers in Thailand and Singapore--who then sell to Vietnam. Coca-Cola, for example, is the country's best-selling soft drink. But firms still want the chance to sell directly. It's not Vietnamese hearts and minds that are at stake; it's dollars and cents.