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Albright to visit Vietnam as ties strengthen

HANOI - U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visits communist Vietnam next week, capping a flurry of bilateral activity that has brought the former foes close to normalising trade ties.
Some analysts said that despite wide differences over Hanoi's human rights record and the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia this year, overall relations were probably at their best since the two sides established diplomatic ties in 1995.

Albright's talks with Vietnamese leaders on Monday and Tuesday are expected to cover trade, human rights and the accounting of 2,050 Americans still listed as missing from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975.
She will also likely discuss boosting cooperation aimed at stemming the flow of hard drugs through Vietnam from the Golden Triangle, where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet.
Albright, who first visited Vietnam in 1997, will make the trip en route to a summit of Asia Pacific leaders in New Zealand.

``I think you can say ties are as good as at any time since 1995 because the central fact driving the relationship has been the accounting for American MIAs,'' said Carlyle Thayer, from the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
Washington has regularly praised Hanoi for helping account for the MIAs, long an emotional topic in the United States, which was rent by a war in which it backed South Vietnam against the ultimately victorious communist North.

But more recently a key factor driving relations has been progress in normalising trade ties. The two sides last month reached preliminary agreement on a trade pact, which will clear the way for Washington to award Hanoi with Normal Trade Relations, giving Vietnam access to the giant U.S. market at low tariff rates applied to most nations.
The deal, long awaited by investors because it will commit Hanoi to opening its economy and lowering business costs, is expected to be formally signed in the next month. It will then need to be approved by the U.S. Congress.

But diplomatic niggles remain, partly reflecting a complex relationship due to the baggage of the Vietnam War. Hanoi's state media vilified Washington and NATO during the Western alliance's bombing of Yugoslavia this year, drawing parallels to Vietnam's own experience as the target of air raids by U.S. B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War.
Party sources say the elite Politburo had even contemplated sending mobs to stone the U.S. embassy in Hanoi to express Vietnamese outrage over the NATO air strikes.
Thayer told Reuters that Albright's decision to visit the country had also prompted Hanoi to postpone a trip by U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen scheduled for late September.

``Hanoi appeared to be uncomfortable in the post-Kosovo era of being seen to have two U.S. heavyweights on their territory in the same month,'' said Thayer, a leading expert on Vietnam. No date has been set for Cohen's rescheduled visit.
Vietnam's poor human rights record has also been an irritant, although U.S. concerns about political prisoners, treatment of dissidents and restrictions on religion are usually channelled through regular bilateral dialogue on human rights.

Reuters - August 31, 1999.